Junk Food in Healthy Disguises Part II: The Cereal Aisle

Back in September, I wrote a blog post that exposed several types of food as unhealthy despite their curious reputation for being “good for you.” It caused quite a stir and has been one of The Pump’s most popular posts to date. Check it out here if you’re curious: Junk Food in Healthy Disguises Part I.

In this post, I’m going to take it a step further by focusing on a very popular category of food that dupes a lot of people: breakfast cereal. The idea for this subsequent post came to me last night as I stood in the cereal aisle at the grocery store, trying not to be swallowed up by all the colorful boxes. (On a side note, you may have noticed that my last name is Kellogg. No relation to the food company, but nonetheless, I’d like to think it affords me some level of jurisdiction to comment on this subject–don’t you agree?)

Anyway, back to last night. I couldn’t believe how many options were available–an entire aisle at Gristedes dedicated to cereal. And the Gristedes in my neighborhood is the size of shoebox, so that’s saying a lot.

Most of the boxed breakfast items I could differentiate as junk pretty easily–things like Fruit Loops, Cocoa Puffs, Capital Crunch, and Fruity Pebbles. Others were more difficult to decipher–Honey Nut Cheerios, Shredded Wheat, and Basic 4, to name a few–mostly because of the flashy health claims on the box. “Made with Whole Grains.” “Lowers Cholesterol.” “Made with Real Fruit.” All these claims sound quite good.

Feeling anxious–even breaking a sweat–I removed my coat, placed my bags on the floor, and began scanning the food labels. 25 minutes later, I narrowed down my list to the top 4 cereals that try their hardest to make you think they’re healthful but offer no nutritional return. Don’t be fooled by the flashy front-of-the-box marketing tactics–these cereals aren’t actually good for you. Instead of picking one of these, opt for the alternative brand that I’ve suggested for each. Your morning will be much better off.

Top 4 “Healthy” Cereals that are really Junk Food in Disguise

1.  Kellogg’s Smart Start

Of all the cereals I reviewed, this one tops the list as having the most inflated health claims. It has 17 grams of sugar per 1 cup — that’s more sugar than Cocoa Puffs. It also contains high frutose syrup, which by itself negates all of the other health benefits, in my opinion. It may be 98% fat-free, but it’s 30% sugar.

Instead try: Kellogg’s Special K (only 4 grams of sugar) with fresh blueberries (less crunchy that the dried, boxed variety).

2. Kellogg’s Raisin Bran

The word “bran” is totally misleading here. This cereal contains a whopping 350 milligrams of sodium and 19 grams of sugar–that’s the highest sugar content of all of the cereals I scanned. You might as well have a cupcake with a side of salt for breakfast.

Instead try: Total by General Mills, which has more vitamins and minerals and far less sugar.

3.  Honey Nut Cheerios by General Mills

Although a serving of this one contains a relatively modest 9 grams of sugar, the ingredients list is pretty scary. 4 of the first 5 ingredients listed on the box are sugar derivatives–”sugar, modified corn starch, honey, and brown sugar syrup.” The sixth ingredient is salt. It may be made with “whole grains,” but modified corn starch and processed sugars are the principal ingredients here.

Instead try: Original Cheerios with a teaspoon of real organic, local honey.

4.  Kashi Go Lean Crunch

Not all Kashi products are created equal. They promote their cereals as “all natural,” but it doesn’t make them nutritionally superior. This one is very caloric–1 cup is 190 calories–and the sugar content is on par with Fruit Loops (13 grams). Although the sugar is “all natural,” your body processes it in the same way–by converting it into fat.

Instead try: Kashi Go Lean, which contains less sugar and more protein.

How to buy the Right Cereal

Now that you know which ones to avoid, here are a few tips for being a smarter consumer. For one, don’t read the front of the box. This is where you are most likely to get tricked. Instead, take the time to read the nutritional label on the back. Look for cereals that have 10 grams or less of sugar per serving and look at the serving size. When it comes to types, all bran/high bran cereals are the way to go.

Here are my recommendations: Fiber One, Grape Nuts, Kashi Go Lean, and Shredded Wheat Original.

Other, Healthier Breakfast Alternatives

If you have other options, you may actually be better off avoiding cereal altogether. Cereals tend to be highly processed, and processed foods often have much less nutritional value than their unprocessed counterparts. If you want to go with something more whole, I would suggest oatmeal, cream of wheat, barley, or even quinoa, topped with fresh fruit and nuts (walnuts or almonds). Add a glass of milk for protein.

But if these other options aren’t available to you, the tips and suggestions above should serve you well on your next trip to the supermarket. Good luck!

Any cereals, either good or bad, to add to this list?

* Photo courtesy of Terren via Flickr.