According to Jennifer L. Harris, lead researcher at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, children get a teaspoon of sugar with every 3 teaspoons of the typical cereal marketed to them. Many adult cereals contain just as much sugar per cup, giving you up to 100 extra calories in your breakfast. The most common sweetener in cereals is high-fructose corn syrup, which, according to Princeton University professor Bart Hoebel, is more likely to cause obesity than table sugar. To reduce your sugar intake, opt for cereals with less than 10 percent of their calories coming from sugar, preferably without HFCS.
All cereal contains carbohydrates, but processing reduces the nutritional quality of a cereal’s carbohydrate content. Whole-grain cereals, including steel-cut oats, whole-wheat, quinoa or whole-oat cereals, provide fiber, along with some starch and a small amount of sugar. In highly processed cereals, the hull and germ are removed from grains, which are then combined with additives and preservatives. These generally contain starch and sugar, but not much fiber. The Harvard School of Public Health recommends only buying cereals that list a whole-grain ingredient first on their labels.
Many cereals contain artificial colors that may pose health risks. In 2007, a study published in “The Lancet” indicated that some artificial food colors increase the likelihood of hyperactivity in children. In 2010, the Center for Science in the Public Interest focused on Red 40 in its publication “Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks,” suggesting that this dye, which is made with petroleum, contains carcinogens that speed up the development of cancerous tumors in mice. It also found that 15 percent of people experience allergic skin reactions to Red 40. Researchers are studying links between other food dyes and health problems, as well.
Although breakfast cereal does not seem like it would have much sodium, many commercial varieties, including those with bran flakes and oat squares, contain 200 to 300 milligrams of sodium per serving. The Institute of Medicine recommends getting no more than 2.3 grams of sodium per day to keep your blood pressure at a safe level, but the average American exceeds this amount by about 1 gram. Starting your day with more than 10 percent of your upper intake of sodium makes it difficult to stay below that recommended number, so choose cereals that are sodium-free or low in sodium.
Preservatives, artificial flavoring and texture enhancers are put into cereals, resulting in a long list of ingredients. The United States Food and Drug Administration is reviewing butylated hydroxyanisole, BHA, and butylated hydroxytoluene, BHT, common preservatives in cereal because some studies indicate that they may cause cancer in rats, while other studies find them safe, according to the University of California at Los Angeles publication “What Food Additives Add.” Although preservatives can keep your cereal fresh and prevent illness due to rancidity, eating unprocessed whole-grain cereals, such as oatmeal, puffed rice or plain bran flakes can help ensure that you get good nutrition without potentially harmful additives.