With more than 300 different breakfast cereals available in Australian supermarkets, labelled with all sorts of claims and figures, it's no wonder we can get confused in the cereal aisle.
If you want to know how to choose a cereal that will give you the best start to your day, read on.
Health Star Rating
In the first instance, we look at a product's health star rating (HSR). HSRs go from 0.5 stars to 5 stars and are designed to help you choose healthier options at a glance.
The HSR is an assessment of the overall healthiness of a product, taking into consideration the less desirable nutrients in food, such as sodium, sugars and saturated fat, as well as beneficial nutrients, including fibre and protein.
A breakfast high in protein will likely keep you feeling more full than one not high in protein. If a food contains 5g or more of protein, it can be considered (and marketed as) a "source of protein".
Look for cereals with at least 5g of wholegrains, which is roughly a third of the daily target (16g). We explain more about wholegrains later.
A cereal high in fibre is a real bonus. Adults need about 25–30g of fibre a day, and most of us don't eat enough. Aiming for a good source of dietary fibre is a great place to start the day – look for a cereal that contains at least 4g a serve.
Less added sugars
Added sugars can be disguised under 60 or more different names and distributed throughout the ingredient list, so they're not always straightforward to identify, and even harder to quantify.
You can also look at the amount of total sugar in a product on the Nutrition Information Panel (NIP). However, this total doesn't differentiate sugars that have been added by the manufacturer (including glucose, honey and fruit juice concentrates) from those that are intrinsic to the food or one of its ingredients (such as the lactose in milk). See What are added sugars? for more.
The World Health Organization recommends that the total daily intake of added sugar for adults and children should not exceed 10% of our total energy needs, which works out to about 50g a day, and suggests a further reduction of 5% or about 25g per day to be even more beneficial.
To help come in under that the 25g per day stick to what the Food Standards list as a low-sugar food and limit your breakfast cereal to no more than 5g of added sugar per serve. We used the George Institute's FoodSwitch app, which estimates the added sugars for many products on the market.
In general, a grain has three parts: the bran, which is the outer layer or skin of the grain; the endosperm, which is the starchy bit in the middle; and the germ, which is the part that can sprout and create new plants.
Wholegrain foods contain all three parts, intact as the whole grain, or processed into flour or meal, typically in the same proportions as found in the intact grain. Examples of wholegrains include wholemeal foods, popcorn, brown rice and rolled oats.
Wholegrains are usually recommended for their fibre content, but they have more to offer than just that. They contain 26 different nutrients including carbohydrates, protein and minerals, and a variety of phytonutrients.
Research has shown that wholegrains are better than refined grains for heart health and that consuming wholegrains reduces type 2 diabetes risk and total cancer mortality.
How much do you need?
A serving size of wholegrains is the same as any grain food: the daily target intake is 48g for adults and 24–40g for children (up to 9 years old) each day.
This can be achieved easily with three serves of grain foods a day. For example, one serve of oats in the morning and a wholemeal sandwich (two pieces of wholegrain bread) at lunch would give you your daily target intake.
How to tell if your breakfast contains wholegrains
Look on the nutrition information panel to see if they've included the wholegrain percentage, and also look for mention of whole grain, oats, brown rice, oatmeal, wholemeal, sprouted, mixed grain, malted whole grain, sorghum, buckwheat and quinoa.
The breakfast cereals with the most wholegrains are:
- rolled oats
- biscuit type cereals (e.g. Weetbix and Vita Brits)
- raw muesli.
We're all looking to make our dollar go further, especially when we have hungry mouths to feed. Small-batch granola with premium ingredients may be delicious and nutritious, but isn't always the best choice on a tight budget.
The categories of breakfast cereal that are the cheapest based on average price per serve are:
- biscuit-style cereals
- kids cereals
- raw muesli.
As oats and biscuit-style cereals are also on the list for the highest HSRs, make these your pick for healthiest cereals on a budget.
Breakfast cereal packets are plastered with a bewildering range of claims designed to catch your eye and get you choosing one product over another.
The problem is that claims such as "no artificial colours or flavours", "contains wholegrain", "added vitamin and minerals", "source of fibre" and "99% fat-free" are masking a cereal that's fibre-flimsy, contains too much salt, too much sugar, or all of the above.
Reading the ingredients list is useful for identifying sources of added sugars (such as glucose syrup or honey) and if the sugar comes from fruit, or to find out if the fat is the healthy, polyunsaturated kind that comes from nuts and seeds).
Added vitamins and minerals
Any processed cereal can have nutrients added during the manufacturing process and be made to appear healthier by slapping "source of vitamins and minerals" on the packet. Most cereals have vitamins and minerals added to them, including those that are unhealthy in every other way.
Make your shortlist based on the Health Star Rating – or alternatively, look for high fibre, a source of protein, wholegrains and/or less added sugar – before considering added vitamins and minerals.
Wholefoods and paleo
Claims such as "100% wholefoods" and "paleo" were seen on many of the cereals with lower Health Star Rating cereals.
Wholefoods may sound nice but it doesn't translate into a cereal that's higher in fibre and protein or lower in added sugars.
As for paleo, this is a diet that excludes or greatly limits the intake of grains. We've already outlined the benefits of wholegrains for health, and excluding whole food groups in your diet may not be the best option. And with such low Health Star Ratings, these are clearly not better choices for most people.
A low GI diet can be beneficial if you suffer from diabetes, and may be useful for people watching their weight, but most people are better off prioritising a cereal with a higher HSR first before looking for a low-GI option.
Any GI claims should be backed up by reliably measured GI values – 55 and under is classified as low. The only way to be certain is to look for the GI logo which means the food must meet specific nutrition criteria as well.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.