whole grain cereal
Illustration: Katie Eaton

You may love a bowl of Froot Loops, but you’re probably under no illusion that eating it is good for you. But what about Flax Maple Pecan Crunch or Smart Start?

“Whole-grain cereal—especially if you eat it with milk and add some fruit—could be a pretty good way to start your day,” says Joan Salge Blake, RDN, a nutrition professor at Boston University. Indeed, eating it may lower risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. However, the kind of cereal you pour into your bowl matters.

More on Healthy Eating

“Even among whole-grain cereals, there are nutritional differences,” says Amy Keating, RD, a Consumer Reports nutritionist. For example, a serving of that healthy-sounding Smart Start has about the same added-sugar content—4½ teaspoons—as a serving of Cap’n Crunch. Shopping for cereal also means assessing on-trend “wellness” ingredients like flax and turmeric, and intriguing health claims such as “grain-free.”

CR nutrition and sensory experts munched their way through 32 cereals—both traditional and grain-free options—that at a glance seem good for you. Our findings can help you start the day with a bowl that’s healthy and tasty.

Look Past Names and Claims

Wholesome-looking packaging and one or two “superfood” ingredients don’t necessarily translate to a better cereal. In our tests, classics such as Cheerios and Grape-Nuts Flakes rated better for nutrition than newcomers with ingredients like flax, turmeric, and ancient grains. “These ingredients don’t guarantee extra benefits and, in a few cases, had drawbacks,” Keating says. For example, Nature’s Path Organic Golden Turmeric Cereal is among the lowest in fiber in our tests, while Special K Protein Honey Almond Ancient Grains is high in added sugars and has soy protein isolate, a highly processed ingredient.

Some cereals are fortified with vitamins and minerals, but that doesn’t make a sugary cereal good for you.

Grain-Free Has Downsides

Their higher protein and lower sugars content can make grain-free cereals seem appealing, particularly to people on a paleo or keto diet. The ones we looked at range from 4 to 12 grams of protein and 0 to 4 grams of added sugars per serving; some are sweetened with allulose or monk fruit, sugar substitutes with negligible calories. (The grain cereals have 2 to 15 grams of protein and 0 to 18 grams of added sugars.) They aren’t low-carb, though. Their carbs come from bean flours, cassava (a root vegetable), and tapioca and potato starches instead of from grains. Those on the higher side for protein rely, in many cases, on processed isolated proteins from sources like lentils, milk, and peas.

You don’t have to go grain-free to get more protein. Serving cereal with a cup of low-fat dairy or soy milk, or ¾ cup of low-fat yogurt, adds around 8 grams of protein, similar to an egg, Keating says. As for sugars, several lower-sugar grain cereals in our tests earned top marks for taste. None of the six grain-free cereals was a flavor standout. They also cost around twice as much as traditional cereals.

Portion Size Matters

Cereal serving sizes range from ⅔ cup to 1½ cups. That amount can look puny in a bowl, and most people eat more. In a CR test, participants were asked to pour out the amount of cereal they’d typically eat. Almost everyone overpoured—by 43 to 114 percent more than the serving on the box when using a medium-sized bowl, depending on the type of cereal.

That’s not necessarily unhealthy, but you should be aware of how much you’re eating. For instance, 2 cups of Post Great Grains Raisins, Dates & Pecans, which received a Very Good nutrition score, has over 500 calories. “Pour the amount you normally eat, and measure it,” Keating says. “Then do the math so you know how many calories and how much sugars and sodium you’re really getting.”

A Little Sugar Isn’t a Bad Thing

To be clear, a cereal doesn’t have to be sugar-free to make it a healthy breakfast. “Let’s pick our battles wisely,” Salge Blake says. If some sugar helps you make a fiber-rich, nutrient-packed cereal part of your morning routine, it’s worth it.

And our testers gave several lightly sweetened cereals high marks for nutrition and taste. Among the 10 that are recommended in our ratings, eight had around 1 teaspoon (4 grams) of added sugars or less per serving, and all received Excellent or Very Good taste scores.

CR’s nutrition experts recommend choosing a cereal with less than 6 grams of added sugars (1½ teaspoons). When you consider the fact that people tend to eat more than one serving of cereal in a meal, you see how the sugars can add up. One way to keep the sweetness without overdoing it on added sugars is to blend half a serving of a favorite sugary cereal with half a serving of a less sugary one. Or try topping a lower-sugar option with fruit, which will add fiber, as well as sweeten it up without any added sugars.

Breakfast Cereal Ratings

Howe we test: The nutrition score is based on values from the nutrition facts panel (e.g., sodium, fiber, added sugars), and the number of processed ingredients in the cereal, such as preservatives and isolated proteins or fibers. The quantity of whole grains and organic certification are also factored in. The taste score is based on the results of a tasting panel of trained sensory experts. Cereals were tasted with and without milk. Because the ingredients are so different, grain-free cereals are rated separately. 

Traditional Cereals
Nature’s Path Organic
Heritage Flakes
Nutrition Score 4
Taste Score 4
Toasted-wheat and slightly sweet flavors. Crunchy and slightly hard even in milk.
Price per package: $5.30
Package size: 13 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 160
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 2/0
  • Carbs (g): 31
  • Fiber (g): 7
  • Added sugars (g) 5
  • Protein (g): 5
  • Sodium (mg): 170
Post Grape-Nuts Flakes*
Nutrition Score 4
Taste Score 4
Slightly sweet and crispy, with a big toasted-grain flavor that intensifies in milk.
Price per package: $4.00
Package size: 18 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 150
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 2/0
  • Carbs (g): 34
  • Fiber (g): 5
  • Added sugars (g) 3
  • Protein (g): 4
  • Sodium (mg): 200
General Mills Cheerios*
Nutrition Score 4
Taste Score 4
Toasted-oat flavor with very little sweetness or other flavors.
Price per package: $3.00
Package size: 9 oz.
  • Serving size (cups):
  • Calories: 140
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 3/1
  • Carbs (g): 29
  • Fiber (g): 4
  • Added sugars (g) 2
  • Protein (g): 5
  • Sodium (mg): 190
Post Great Grains
Raisins, Dates & Pecans*
Nutrition Score 4
Taste Score 5
Fruit is moist and chewy. Not too sweet. Stays crunchy in milk.
Price per package: $4.70
Package size: 16 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): ¾
  • Calories: 200
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 4/0
  • Carbs (g): 40
  • Fiber (g): 4
  • Added sugars (g) 4
  • Protein (g): 4
  • Sodium (mg): 140
General Mills Total*
Nutrition Score 4
Taste Score 4
Has toasted-wheat, slightly sweet, and malty flavors that intensify in milk.
Price per package: $4.00
Package size: 16 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 140
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 1/0
  • Carbs (g): 33
  • Fiber (g): 4
  • Added sugars (g) 5
  • Protein (g): 3
  • Sodium (mg): 190
One Degree Organic Foods Sprouted Ancient Maize Flakes
Nutrition Score 4
Taste Score 4
A little gritty. Big toasted-corn flavor and slightly sweet. Stays crisp in milk.
Price per package: $7.20
Package size: 12 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): ¾
  • Calories: 180
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 2/0
  • Carbs (g): 39
  • Fiber (g): 3
  • Added sugars (g) 4
  • Protein (g): 3
  • Sodium (mg): 260
General Mills Wheaties*
Nutrition Score 4
Taste Score 4
Toasted-wheat and lightly sweet malty flavors.
Price per package: $5.00
Package size: 16 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 130
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 1/0
  • Carbs (g): 30
  • Fiber (g): 4
  • Added sugars (g) 5
  • Protein (g): 3
  • Sodium (mg): 240
Kind Honey Almond
Nutrition Score 4
Taste Score 5
Moderately sweet, with honey and cinnamon flavors. Lots of toasted almond slices and coconut flakes.
Price per package: $6.00
Package size: 15 oz.
  • Serving size (cups):
  • Calories: 250
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 11/4
  • Carbs (g): 35
  • Fiber (g): 4
  • Added sugars (g) 7
  • Protein (g): 6
  • Sodium (mg): 80
Post Grape-Nuts Original*
Nutrition Score 4
Taste Score 4
Big toasted-wheat and barley flavors. Malty but not sweet. Hard, even in milk, but the longer it sits, the softer the texture becomes.
Price per package: $4.90
Package size: 21 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): ½
  • Calories: 200
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 1/0
  • Carbs (g): 47
  • Fiber (g): 7
  • Added sugars (g) 0
  • Protein (g): 6
  • Sodium (mg): 280
Barbara’s Multigrain Spoonfuls Original
Nutrition Score 4
Taste Score 4
Sweet, with flavors of brown sugar and molasses.
Price per package: $4.70
Package size: 14 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 140
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 2/0
  • Carbs (g): 31
  • Fiber (g): 5
  • Added sugars (g) 7
  • Protein (g): 5
  • Sodium (mg): 210
Food For Life Organic
Ezekiel 4:9 Cinnamon Raisin
Nutrition Score 4
Taste Score 3
Strong grain flavor with some cinnamon and very little sweetness. Crunchy and slightly hard even in milk. Hard raisins.
Price per package: $7.70
Package size: 16 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): ½
  • Calories: 190
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 1/0
  • Carbs (g): 38
  • Fiber (g): 5
  • Added sugars (g) 1
  • Protein (g): 7
  • Sodium (mg): 130
Post Bran Flakes*
Nutrition Score 4
Taste Score 3
Toasted-wheat and bran flavors with very slight sweetness.
Price per package: $6.40
Package size: 16 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 110
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 1/0
  • Carbs (g): 29
  • Fiber (g): 7
  • Added sugars (g) 6
  • Protein (g): 4
  • Sodium (mg): 190
Nature’s Path Organic Flax
Plus Maple Pecan Crunch
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 5
Big pecan and maple flavors that are enhanced by milk.
Price per package: $5.40
Package size: 12 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 240
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 8/1
  • Carbs (g): 41
  • Fiber (g): 5
  • Added sugars (g) 9
  • Protein (g): 7
  • Sodium (mg): 210
Cascadian Farm Organic
Multi Grain Squares
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 4
Tastes mostly of wheat. Milk brings out sweet and malty flavors.
Price per package: $4.00
Package size: 12 oz.
  • Serving size (cups):
  • Calories: 260
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 2/0
  • Carbs (g): 54
  • Fiber (g): 5
  • Added sugars (g) 9
  • Protein (g): 6
  • Sodium (mg): 240
General Mills Wheat Chex*
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 4
Toasted-wheat flavor and very lightly sweet. Stays crispy in milk.
Price per package: $3.00
Package size: 14 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 210
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 1/0
  • Carbs (g): 51
  • Fiber (g): 8
  • Added sugars (g) 6
  • Protein (g): 6
  • Sodium (mg): 340
Quaker Oatmeal Squares Cinnamon*
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 4
Moderately sweet, with cinnamon and brown sugar flavors. Crunchy and hard even in milk.
Price per package: $4.00
Package size: 15 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 210
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 3/1
  • Carbs (g): 44
  • Fiber (g): 5
  • Added sugars (g) 9
  • Protein (g): 6
  • Sodium (mg): 190
Kellogg’s Raisin Bran
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 4
Lots of large, moist, sugar-coated raisins. Toasted-wheat flavor. Stays crispy in milk.
Price per package: $3.00
Package size: 24 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 190
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 1/0
  • Carbs (g): 47
  • Fiber (g): 7
  • Added sugars (g) 9
  • Protein (g): 5
  • Sodium (mg): 200
Quaker Life*
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 4
Toasted-grain flavor, with sugar crystals throughout. Crispy but softens in milk.
Price per package: $3.70
Package size: 18 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 160
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 2/0
  • Carbs (g): 33
  • Fiber (g): 3
  • Added sugars (g) 8
  • Protein (g): 4
  • Sodium (mg): 200
Cascadian Farm Organic
Hearty Morning Fiber
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 3
Toasted-grain with slightly sweet and honey flavors. Slightly bitter and gritty.
Price per Package: $4.00
Package size: 15 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 220
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 4/1
  • Carbs (g): 51
  • Fiber (g): 10
  • Added sugars (g) 10
  • Protein (g): 6
  • Sodium (mg): 180
Barbara’s Puffins Multigrain*
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 3
Moderately sweet and vanilla flavors. Some pieces taste stale and get stuck in your teeth. Milk intensifies sweetness.
Price per package: $4.30
Package size: 10 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 130
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 1/0
  • Carbs (g): 33
  • Fiber (g): 4
  • Added sugars (g) 7
  • Protein (g): 3
  • Sodium (mg): 100
Nature’s Path Organic Golden Turmeric Cereal
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 3
Sweet, with distinct cinnamon, turmeric, and ginger flavors. A bit spicy, but milk mellows the flavor. Stays crunchy in milk.
Price per package: $5.80
Package size: 11 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 160
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 2/1
  • Carbs (g): 34
  • Fiber (g): 2
  • Added sugars (g) 6
  • Protein (g): 2
  • Sodium (mg): 190
Kashi Go Crunch
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 4
Sweet, with brown sugar and cinnamon flavors. A bit crumbly.
Price per package: $4.90
Package size: 14 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): ¾
  • Calories: 190
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 3/0
  • Carbs (g): 38
  • Fiber (g): 9
  • Added sugars (g) 11
  • Protein (g): 9
  • Sodium (mg): 100
Kellogg’s Special K Protein
Honey Almond Ancient Grains*
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 4
Honey and maple flavors somewhat overpower grain flavor. Sparse almonds.
Price per package: $4.00
Package size: 11 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1⅓
  • Calories: 220
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 3/0
  • Carbs (g): 38
  • Fiber (g): 6
  • Added sugars (g) 9
  • Protein (g): 15
  • Sodium (mg): 270
Kellogg’s Frosted Mini Wheats Original*
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 4
Moderately sweet. Crispy, but gets very soft in milk.
Price per package: $3.30
Package size: 24 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 210
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 2/0
  • Carbs (g): 51
  • Fiber (g): 6
  • Added sugars (g) 12
  • Protein (g): 5
  • Sodium (mg): 10
Kellogg’s Special K*
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 4
Mild toasted-rice and slightly sweet flavors that are enhanced by milk.
Price per package: $4.40
Package size: 18 oz.
  • Serving size (cups):
  • Calories: 150
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 1/0
  • Carbs (g): 29
  • Fiber (g): <1
  • Added sugars (g) 4
  • Protein (g): 7
  • Sodium (mg): 270
Kellogg’s Smart Start*
Nutrition Score 2
Taste Score 3
Quite sweet, with a hint of cinnamon.
Price per package: $5.00
Package size: 18 oz.
  • Serving size (cups):
  • Calories: 240
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 1/0
  • Carbs (g): 56
  • Fiber (g): 3
  • Added sugars (g) 18
  • Protein (g): 5
  • Sodium (mg): 260
Grain-Free Cereals
Forager Project Organic
Grain-Free Os Cinnamon
Nutrition Score 4
Taste Score 3
Slightly gritty. Has vegetal, floral, and cinnamon flavors. Stays crispy in milk. Made from cassava, beans, and pea protein.
Price per package: $6.00
Package size: 7.5 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 110
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 1/0
  • Carbs (g): 26
  • Fiber (g): 4
  • Added sugars (g) 3
  • Protein (g): 4
  • Sodium (mg): 5
Love Grown Grain Free
Cinnamon Sweet Potato
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 2
Milk intensifies the very slight bitter and vegetal flavors and makes it slightly mushy. Slightly cinnamony. Made from pea protein, cassava, tapioca and potato starches, and almond flour.
Price per package: $6.00
Package size: 8 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 130
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 4.5/1.5
  • Carbs (g): 21
  • Fiber (g): 4
  • Added sugars (g) 4
  • Protein (g): 10
  • Sodium (mg): 75
Seven Sundays Grain Free
Real Cinnamon
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 2
Very little sweetness. Slight cinnamon flavor with some bitterness. Crunchy and slightly tough. Made from cassava and sunflower protein.
Price per package: $7.00
Package size: 8 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 140
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 2/1.5
  • Carbs (g): 24
  • Fiber (g): 2
  • Added sugars (g) 2
  • Protein (g): 5
  • Sodium (mg): 10
Three Wishes Grain Free Cinnamon
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 3
Quite sweet, with big cinnamon flavor. Made from chickpeas, tapioca starch, and pea protein. Sweetened with monk fruit and sugar.
Price per package: $10.00
Package size: 8.6 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): ¾
  • Calories: 120
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 2/0
  • Carbs (g): 18
  • Fiber (g): 3
  • Added sugars (g) 3
  • Protein (g): 8
  • Sodium (mg): 130
Kashi Go Grain Free Cinnamon Vanilla
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 2
Cinnamon and vegetal flavors, with some maple. Slightly bitter. Made from lentil and pea proteins, chickpea flour, and tapioca starch. Sweetened with monk fruit and allulose.
Price per package: $5.50
Package size: 7 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 160
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 7/1
  • Carbs (g): 18
  • Fiber (g): 5
  • Added sugars (g) 0
  • Protein (g): 12
  • Sodium (mg): 160
Magic Spoon Grain-Free Cinnamon
Nutrition Score 3
Taste Score 3
Moderately sweet and cinnamony. Airy texture; sticks to teeth. Made from milk proteins and tapioca starch. Sweetened with monk fruit and allulose.
Price per package: $9.80
Package size: 7 oz.
  • Serving size (cups): 1
  • Calories: 140
  • Total fat/Sat. fat (g) 7/1
  • Carbs (g): 15
  • Fiber (g): 2
  • Added sugars (g) 0
  • Protein (g): 12
  • Sodium (mg): 150
*Fortified with vitamins/minerals.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the February 2022 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.