Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so which breakfast cereals are actually giving our kids the best start to their day?
Childhood obesity has been estimated to effect ~ 1 in every 4 Australian children and with more than half of children aged 2-8 years consuming breakfast cereals, it’s important that we check that we are choosing the cereals that are actually giving our children a nutritious start to the day.
Every time I go to the supermarket, I feel that the number of breakfast cereals available keeps growing and growing. Sometimes individual brands bring out different versions of their cereals, sometimes supermarkets have created their home brand version of our favourites, and sometimes some brand new options hit the shelves. Whether you are looking for muesli, porridge, clusters, flakes, biscuits or gluten free cereals, it is important to know what you are looking out for to help you make the best choices.
Making Sense of Information on Cereal Boxes
Choose cereals with lots of these ingredients
Ingredients are always listed from most in the product to least in the product. This means that the first 3 ingredients of any product give you a good idea of what the bulk of that product contains.
You will often see cereal boxes boasting that they are ‘wholegrain’or a ‘good source of fibre’. We want to make sure that these grains form the basis of the cereal so should feature as the first ingredient of any breakfast cereal.
Great choices include those that contain any of the following:
- Wholegrain oats
- Wholegrain wheat
- Wholegrain barley
- Wheat bran
Gluten free specific:
- Whole Brown rice
- Wholegrain Sorghum
Nuts and Seeds are also a great inclusion into breakfast cereals. They provide protein, a range of good fats, fibre and a number of microntutrients. The more different nuts and seeds a cereal contains the better.
If nuts or seeds must be avoided in your household due to allergies, not to worry, you can always add a sprinkling of non-allergic nuts and seeds once you get the cereal home and into the bowl.
Look out for cereals that contain additional sources of fibre. Gluten free cereals tend to be lower in fibre than others so you will often see ingredients such as psyllium husk or chickpea fibre added to the better gluten free cereals.
Choose cereals with the least of these ingredients
Sugar has many names making it very confusing when trying to work out how much sugar has been added to our breakfast cereals. Call it sugar, cane sugar, cane syrup, brown sugar, raw sugar, invert syrup, sucrose, glucose, golden syrup, malt syrup, barley malt extract, brown rice/rice/rice malt syrup, molasses, dextrose or honey but no matter which way you look at it, all of these ingredients (and more) represent added sugar in your breakfast cereal. While honey does offer small amounts of other beneficial components, at the end of the day, it is still a sugar and hopefully will not feature in the top three ingredients of your cereal packet.
Flavoured porridge sachets are one of the biggest offenders when it comes to added sugars. Best to buy the plain porridge and add any flavourings yourself.
Dried fruits, while offering some wonderful nutrients can be very sticky on little teeth (and big teeth for that matter). Some dried fruits also contain added sugar so be wary of those. Ideally chopping up some fresh fruit on top of your cereal where possible.
Fats can also catch us off guard when it comes to breakfast cereals. As a general rule, most breakfast cereals do not have added fats other than toasted mueslis or cluster types of cereals where the oats, or other ingredients may have been toasted in a fat or oil.
Sodium (salt) continues to be my bugbear when it comes to packaged foods and our breakfast cereals are not exempt from scrutiny. While most breakfast cereals do come in under 150mg sodium per 100g of the product, there are a cheeky few which are sitting well above this recommendation. (this is often where the vita brits vs weetbix debate happens for me – vita brits has added salt while weetbix has added sugar)
Look out for added vitamins and minerals
Many of our breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamins including Vitamin B1 (Thiamin), B2 (Riboflavin) and B3 (Niacin) – which are all essential for general wellbeing, helping us get all of the energy out of our foods, keep our skin and eyes healthy – and folate/folic acid which, amongst other things can reduce the risk of neural tube defects in unborn babies. Minerals sometimes added include calcium (good for teeth and bone health), iron (get oxygen around our body) and zinc (important for maintaining a healthy immune system).
Keep in mind though that just because a cereal has added vitamins and minerals, does not mean that it is a great option overall.
Health Star Ratings
The Health Star Rating (HSR) system has been put in place to try to help people make the best food choices without having to spend hours looking through food labels. They are one tool which isn’t perfect but can be helpful to guide the better choices within a food category.
The more stars a product gets, the better it is performing with respect to total energy, saturated fat, sugars and sodium which has been careful balanced against some of the more beneficial nutrients such as protein and fibre content of the product.
Choosing a cereal with 5 stars will always be a better choice than one that gets a 1 or 2 star rating.
We are trying to choose breakfast cereals that have the most fibre and the least added sugars and sodium. Having some added vitamins and minerals is always helpful too.
Remember, breakfast is one eating occasion for the day. Many children will also have morning and afternoon snacks as well as lunch and dinner meals. Breakfast is a very important meal to start a child’s day. It provides them with fuel to learn and play for their morning so when choosing a breakfast cereal for most days of the week, try to find one that meets the criteria discussed above.
If your child’s favourite cereal doesn’t meet these criteria, do not fear because remember, food is also supposed to be fun. As a family decide on some boundaries and rules around some of the less ideal cereals – whether a box is purchased in school holidays or can be consumed on weekends, there is nothing that a child should never be allowed to eat.