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How to choose a healthy breakfast cereal

By Alexandra Sifferlin, Time.com
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Fri July 6, 2012
Are the 'healthy' cereals really healthy or just misleadingly advertised?
Are the 'healthy' cereals really healthy or just misleadingly advertised?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cereal makers offer 'healthy' options, but some are better options than others.
  • Learning to search nutrition labels for misleading information can help you make smarter choices.
  • Whole grain cereals that are low in sugar (and fake sugar!) are your best bets.

(Time.com) -- Health experts offer tips for navigating the cereal aisle and finding the most nutritious -- and tastiest -- options among the fruity flakes and fiber twigs

Added sugar vs. natural sugar

Increasingly, breakfast-cereal makers are offering more nutritious, low-sugar options. The trick is trying to find them amidst the Cocoa Puffs, Frosted Flakes, Lucky Charms and all the other sugary concoctions on grocery store shelves. Even cereals that seem healthy -- if you're to trust the front-of-the-box labels on many brands -- may be just the opposite.

"Companies have made it harder for shoppers to find a good cereal. They make all these health claims and you really have to read the fine print," says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

First look at the Nutrition Facts panel on the side of the cereal box (ignore any health claims made on the front), which lists the grams of sugar contained. Then, be sure to compare it to the overall serving size. If a cereal says it has 10 grams of sugar and a serving size of 30 grams, that means the cereal is one-third sugar.

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That same cereal might boast that it's "High in Fiber!" but it hardly matters if it's basically 30% sugar. "Companies take a junky cereal with a lot of sugar and add fiber to make parents think it's healthy for their kids," says Liebman. "If one-third of the bowl is sugar, it's breakfast candy. Putting in a touch of fiber or whole grains does not make the sugar go away."

Bear in mind, however, that sugar numbers will also include any sugar from fruit. So, if you're eating a raisin bran cereal, don't be concerned if the natural sugars from the fruit make the sugar content a little higher. Read the ingredients: if it's real fruit, it's O.K.

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Load up on whole grains

Eating whole grains in the morning is a great idea. Can you get them from cereals with front-of-the-box health claims like "Made with whole grain" or "Whole grain in first ingredient"? Nope. These claims are misleading, experts say.

"The simplest thing to do is look at the [actual] list of ingredients," says Liebman. "The first and second ingredient should be whole grain. Whole grain wheat, whole grain oats. Typically, if you see rice or rice flour, it's refined grain and that's not good for you."

Here's what to look for in the ingredient list:

-- 100% whole grain

-- The word "whole": if it doesn't appear before each grain, assume the grain is refined.

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Here's what you should be wary of:

-- "Made with whole grain." "This can mean, Made with 'very little' whole grain," says Liebman. Remember, a products ingredients are listed in order of quantity. If the first or second ingredient is refined, the cereal probably isn't very healthy overall.

-- Health claims that highlight "grams" of whole grain. As with sugar, you need to compare the amount of whole grains to the overall serving size. If the serving size and grams of whole grains are close, that means the cereal is almost 100% whole grain.

There are some exceptions to the 100% rule. Some cereals are low in whole grains because they are high in other nutritious ingredients like bran, nuts, fruit and soy. As always, look at the first two ingredients listed.

Watch out for 'fake' fiber

Fiber keeps you full, but when it comes to looking at cereal labels, you're better off seeking out whole grains. "Fiber is in general good, but all fibers are not created equal," says Liebman. "Intact fibers that come from whole grains or bran carry health benefits, but many cereals add in isolated fibers, which are removed from grains and made into powders."

These fibers, which can include oat fiber, soy fiber, corn fiber, etc., have no proven health benefits. "They may have absolutely no benefit for you. We just don't know," says Liebman. "Having any sort of fiber as an ingredient just gives companies a chance to boast."

Liebman recommends ignoring the fiber claims and looking only for cereals with whole grains and low sugar.

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Ignore bogus health claims

The front panels of cereal boxes are plastered with all sorts of health declarations touting weight loss benefits to magic ingredients that'll change your life. Here's what to watch out for:

-- Fake fruits: The "strawberries" in your Kellogg's Strawberry Delight Bite Size Mini-Wheats are most likely a mixture of food dyes and gelatin (yuck), according to Liebman. The "raspberries" floating in your bowl are likely to have more salt than raspberry powder. "If you see fruit on the front, you have to read the ingredient list and look for real fruit," says Liebman.

-- Yogurt clusters: Yogurt sounds like it should be healthy, but yogurt coating is essentially oil and sugar and has no health benefits

-- "Slimming" cereals: Many cereals, especially those that are "high in fiber," claim you can drop a pant size if you eat a bowl for every meal. Sure, people who eat more fiber and whole grains tend to weigh less, but most cereals can't claim to cause weight loss — especially not if most of the "fiber" in them is processed.

-- Low in saturated fat: Many cereals claim they're low in saturated fat and are, therefore, good for your heart. Well, duh. Liebman says any food low in saturated fat can make that claim.

-- Calorie counts: Cereals, especially heavier ones with granola, are higher in calories than people realize. Think about how tiny a serving size of a quarter-cup is. Are you really only going to eat that much cereal for breakfast? "Calories really do count," says Liebman. "People tend to fill up the bowl, eat it, and fill it again. They assume cereal is a low-calorie, healthy food."

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The 10 cereals to buy

Liebman and her colleague, Jayne Hurley, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, came up with a "Best Bites" rating system for cereals in their Nutrition Action Health Letter. To receive the seal of approval, cereals must have the following:

-- Little or no refined grains OR the first two ingredients are whole grain, bran, fruit or soy

-- No more than 250 calories per cup

-- At least 3 grams of fiber for lighter cereals (a serving weighs about 1 oz or 30 grams) or at least 6 grams of fiber for heavier cereals (a serving weighs about 2 oz or 55 grams)

-- No artificial sweeteners like aspartame

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Here are five popular cereals from the CSPI's recommended "Best Bites" list:

-- Post Bran Flakes, 130 calories, 5 g of fiber, 1.5 tsp sugar per cup

-- Kashi GOLEAN, 140 calories, 10 g of fiber (includes isolated fiber), 1.5 tsp sugar per cup

-- General Mills Fiber One 80 Calories, 110 calories, 10 g of fiber (includes isolated fiber), 1 tsp sugar per cup

-- Kellogg's Frosted Mini-Wheats Little Bites, 190 calories, 6 g of fiber, 3 tsp sugar per cup

-- Whole Foods 365 Organic Raisin Bran, 180 calories, 6 g of fiber, 4 tsp sugar per cup

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The the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity created a nutrition score system based on cereals' total calories and mix of healthy and unhealthy ingredients like sugar, sodium and fiber. Here are five of the highest-scoring cereals on the center's list:

-- Post Shredded Wheat Original, 150 calories, 5.3 g of fiber, 0.4 g of sugar per 2 biscuits (46 g)

-- Barbara's Bakery Shredded Wheat, 140 calories, 5 g of fiber, 0 g of sugar per 2 biscuits (40 g)

-- Kashi 7 Whole Grains Puffs, 70 calories, 1 g of fiber, 0 g of sugar per cup

-- Kashi Island Vanilla, 250 calories, 6 g of fiber, 2.5 tsp sugar per cup

-- Kellogg Unfrosted Mini-Wheats Bite Size, 200 calories, 6 g of fiber, 1 g of sugar per 30 biscuits (59 g)

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This article originally appeared on Time.com:

How to choose a healthy breakfast cereal

© 2012 TIME, Inc. TIME is a registered trademark of Time Inc. Used with permission.

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