4 things to watch out for on a cereal box nutritional label

Don't depend on the front-of-box nutrition claims

Published: September 15, 2014 04:15 PM

You can’t rely on front-of-box claims to determine how healthful a certain cereal may be. Here are four things to check on the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list before you buy.

1. Read beyond the first ingredient

Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight on food labels, so a whole grain would need to be the primary ingredient in a cereal making this claim. But read beyond the first ingredient, and you may find sugars, fats, and artificial flavors. And whole grain doesn’t always mean high fiber. Check the label; you want a cereal with at least 5 grams of fiber.

2. Watch for sugars

The more sugar, the less healthy the cereal. And beware: Sugar may be listed under multiple names, such as brown sugar, caramel, and honey. Some cereals also contain artificial sweeteners. Aim for no more than 8 grams per serving. This cereal contains sugar and honey, plus the artificial sweeteners sucralose and acesulfame potassium. That may explain why this cereal has only 80 calories per serving.

Learn more about the benefits of a healthy breakfast and follow these eight healthy breakfast ideas.

3. Check the source of the fiber

On this cereal label, whole grain corn is the first ingredient, which is good. But there's no way to know how much of the cereal's fiber is coming from the whole grain. In fact, it contains added fiber in the form of inulin, pea fiber, and bleached oat fiber. They may not have the same health benefits as fiber from whole grains. Always check a cereal's label for added fibers.  

4. Examine serving size

It can be tricky to compare the nutrition information on cereal boxes because cereal varies in density. According to rules from the Food and Drug Administration, a serving is the fraction of a cup that comes closest to 15, 30, or 55 grams depending on the density of the cereal. A serving of a dense cereal such as granola may be ½ cup and that of a flake cereal may be 1 cup. Keep that in mind when you’re pouring the cereal into your bowl.


Decoding other claims that sound healthy

You’re likely to see the following promises on many brands. Here’s what they really mean.

Stay full longer!

This claim probably refers to a cereal’s protein content. Research shows that a protein-rich breakfast can help you feel full and thereby prevent weight gain. But cereal isn’t the best protein choice. Eggs, Greek yogurt, and nut butter are all higher in protein. Plus, pumped-up protein cereals can be high in sugar. For a quick protein-rich breakfast, mix your favorite high-fiber, low-sugar cereal with plain Greek yogurt instead of milk.

Provides 11 essential vitamins and minerals

This claim is essentially meaningless because just about all cereals are fortified with nutrients. Moreover, it’s a claim that’s most popular among brands high in sugar (more than 8 grams per serving).

Heart healthy

The FDA requires a cereal making this claim to be low in saturated fat and cholesterol. But most cereals are, so one without the claim may be equally good for you.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the October 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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