To Eat My Kids’ Cereal… Or Not?

January 28, 2014

You can’t judge a book by its cover, and apparently you can’t judge cereal by the colors on the box either.

by Allison Bloom, Editor of Food, Nutrition & Science

When we go on a family vacation, I like to pack some breakfast food for the hotel. This past summer break, on one such trip, I allowed my kids to choose their eats. We combed the aisles at Target, both kids happily selecting their favorite sugar cereal. I, on the other hand, begrudgingly tossed some bran flakes into the cart, “because,” as I explained matter-of-factly to the littles, “grown-ups eat healthy cereal.”

We woke up that first morning at the beach ready to start the day off right. My kids excitedly tore open their travel sized Fruit Loops and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, but as I reached for my bran, I realized something horrifying. I, the ultimate planner, had left the bran at home!!

Imagine my trepidation as I reached for the Fruit Loops. Me? Eat my kids’ sugar cereal? Unacceptable. That is, until I happened to glance at the Nutrition Facts panel and found myself truly shocked – not by the lack of nutritious value this cereal provided, but by the overwhelming abundance of vitamins and minerals it apparently contained.

Curiosity sparked, I started to do some research. Back in the cereal aisle at Target, I began to examine the Nutrition Facts panels on many different kinds of cereals. Without milk, for example, Kashi GoLean Crunch contains 190 calories per 1 cup serving, 3 grams of fat, 8 grams of fiber and 9 grams of protein. It also contains 4% of the daily requirements for calcium, 10% of the daily requirements for magnesium and iron, and 15% of the daily requirements for phosphorous. 

By comparison, Cinnamon Toast Crunch contains 130 calories per ¾ cup serving, 3 grams of fat, 2 grams of dietary fiber and 1 gram of protein. It also contains 10% of the daily requirements for vitamin A, D and C and calcium, and 25% of the daily requirements for iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B12, folic acid and zinc. 

Like Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Cheerios, Fruit Loops and Raisin Bran reveal similarly hearty vitamin and mineral panels; like Kashi GoLean, Nature’s Path Organic cereal contained more protein and fiber than the sugar cereals but no A, B, C or D vitamins, and little calcium. And here’s the craziest part. Kashi GoLean actually contains more sugar than Cinnamon Toast Crunch, even when adjusted for portion size (CTC has 12 grams of sugar per cup while Kashi GoLean has 13!). 

For years I’ve been eating cereals like Kashi because of the higher protein and fiber contents. Protein and fiber are widely promoted for their health benefits and for keeping adults trim and fit. Experts tell us that if we eat these cereals, we can stay fuller longer, we are less likely to suffer a sugar crash and we will stay regular. These are all important adult concerns. However, vitamin deficiencies – specifically vitamins B12 and D – are more profound in the aging adult population because these vitamins are harder for older bodies to process and absorb. In fact, the Institute of Medicine recommends that people over age 51 get their daily B12 from supplements or cereal fortified with the vitamin. 

So if we’re supposed to get our B12 from cereals, and the “healthier adult” cereals are under-fortified, maybe it’s not unreasonable to start dipping into your children’s cereal stash. I’ve been avoiding Lucky Charms for years, and it turns out I have lower than recommended blood levels of both D and B12. It’s all a bit ironic.

Deborah Beauvais, RDN SNS, Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that the marketing of a product does not always support the actual science of the Nutrition Facts Label on the product, and that it is so important to compare Nutrition Fact panels of various products side by side and really pay little attention to the front of the package marketing. With any and all products, says Beauvais, when you remove sugar you usually see higher fat – and vice versa – as there has to be something to flavor the food.   

“Individually portioned (usually 28 grams or 1 cup) cereals marketed for kids really have a great nutrition mix for every consumer. They contain protein, carbs, fat, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Add lowfat or fat free milk to the cereal and ½ to 1 cup fruit or juice and you have a nice complete breakfast meal that covers all the nutrition bases. Also keep in mind that cereal is not just for breakfast. It can make for a healthful quick on the go snack or meal for that family that is running from event to event after school too,” adds Beauvais.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, and apparently you can’t judge cereal by the colors on the box either. We need to be better informed about our food choices – sometimes our perceptions about the healthfulness, or lack thereof, of a product are not based on science when they should be. Read the Nutrition Facts panels, and perhaps even take a chance on a big box of carbs decorated with goofy cartoon characters. Not all cereals – or diets – are created equal.