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Is Cereal Good for You?

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD - Blogs
By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RDRegistered dietitianOctober 20, 2020

I’ve been on a cereal kick lately. A bowl of plain “o’s” with a handful of fresh berries has been my go-to, something I look forward to every morning. I’m not the only one finding comfort in cereal right now: Sales of cereal jumped when the pandemic began.

There’s a lot to love about cereal: It’s affordable. It’s shelf-stable. And fortified kinds deliver nutrients like vitamins D and B12 that many adults are lacking. But some people have concerns about cereal (pre-pandemic, cereal sales had taken a nosedive). So here are answers to common questions, plus a quick shopping guide:

Does cereal contain pesticides?

There have been a lot of headlines about the weed killer glyphosate in oat cereal, thanks to a report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The EWG set its own safety threshold (far lower than the government’s) and claims their tests reveal unsafe levels of glyphosate in many oat cereals. But even the EWG says the risk is from long-term exposure, so I make sure to vary the kinds of cereals (and the kinds of breakfasts) I eat.

What about preservatives?

Many cereals contain a preservative, either in the cereal or in the packaging, to keep it fresher longer. Some animal research has shown an increased risk of tumor development from commonly used BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene). But other research finds BHT acts like an antioxidant and lowers cancer risk. If you choose to avoid BHT, you can easily find varieties without it. Some kinds use vitamin E (which may be listed as “mixed tocopherols”) as a preservative instead.

Is cereal too processed?

There is research showing that a diet high in “ultra-processed” foods -- like cookies, chicken nuggets, soda, chips, and sugary breakfast cereal -- may up the risk for cancer and early death. But some cereals contain just a few simple ingredients, so choose those most often (but in my house, high-sugar “treat” cereals are OK occasionally too!).

What about protein?

Some people shun cereal in favor of high-protein breakfasts like eggs. That’s fine, but keep in mind that a typical bowl of cereal with milk does contain protein. My “o’s” breakfast packs about 9 grams. You can add more by sprinkling on chopped nuts or seeds (and be sure to use dairy, soy, or protein-fortified plant milks since almond and rice milk contain very little protein).

How to Pick a Cereal

The cereal aisle can be overwhelming, so here are some guidelines to use when comparing boxes:

High fiber: Look for at least 3-5 grams of fiber per serving. Most adults get about half the fiber they need every day, and cereal is an easy way to get more. Fiber also makes your bowl more filling.

Whole grains: A diet high in whole grains can help protect you against heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Look for the word “whole” in the first ingredient, like whole oat or whole wheat or a whole grain like brown rice.

Low sugar: Look for single-digit sugar grams, and the lower the better. If you opt for unsweetened, you can sweeten it yourself (even sprinkling a half-teaspoon of sugar on top adds only 2 grams of sugar!), mix it with a sweetened cereal, or put fresh or frozen fruit into your bowl like I do, to add natural sweetness.


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About the Author
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD

Sally Kuzemchak is a registered dietitian in Columbus, Ohio. An award-winning reporter and writer, Sally has been published in magazines such as Health, Family Circle, and Eating Well and is a Contributing Editor to Parents magazine. She is the author of the book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She blogs at Real Mom Nutrition, a "no-judgments" zone all about feeding families.

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