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The 5 things you need to know about ... cereal

TODAY food editor Phil Lempert advises which boxes of breakfast flakes should be on your family's table.
/ Source: TODAY

Each year, Americans buy almost 3 billion packages of the 250+ varieties of cereal that appear on the average supermarket shelf. Not only can the cereal aisle be a parent's nightmare, many people wonder why the stuff is so expensive and how healthy the so-called "healthy" brands are.

Today, almost half of all Americans - 49 percent - start their day with a bowl of cereal, and on average we consume 100 bowls a year. But before the 20th century dawned, breakfasts in the United States were hearty, full of eggs, meat, biscuits, and more, aimed to fire up the farmer, fuel the industrial worker, and to the less vigorous business community, it was a demonstration of bounty, indicating their wealth.

Then, in 1894, the Kellogg brothers, who in Michigan ran the Battle Creek Sanatorium (the equivalent to our health resorts today!) came up with a technique for making flakes out of flattened wheat berries, and the idea for a breakfast cereal was born. It took them eight more years to finalize the product, but in 1906, the first commercial cereal hit the market shelves sparking off a multi-billion dollar industry that now encompasses enormous varieties and embracing not only wheat, but rice, corn, barley, combinations, and pure bran. It also changed the way people viewed breakfast, adding an option for a lighter, albeit critical start to the day.

During the Depression and onward, many classic adult cereals were pitched to children championing them as “breakfast of champions” or for their “snap, crackle, and pop.” Today, however, many children’s cereals are sweeter than candy, promoted via entertainment media continuously (and oftentimes aggressively) which means parents need to recognize what a healthful cereal is versus one that’s a sugary treat.

Frankly, if we are going to turn around the growing obesity problem we must empower parents with the correct tools and information about what their kids should be eating.  The other positive side effect of instilling good choices for breakfast (and every meal) in children is that those choices will be part of their adult lives, thus giving these children a good chance that they will avoid dental caries, diabetes, heart disease, and life-long obesity.

The 5 things you need to know about breakfast cereal:

1. Breakfast IS the most important meal of the day
People (both adults and kids) who eat cereal, according to a National Institutes of Health study published in September 2005, actually have healthier body weights than those who don’t eat cereal. Other reports show that kids who eat breakfast do better in school, have less disciplinary problems and consume less fat overall in their diets.

While it’s easy to choose a cereal that tastes great, it’s harder to find one that is lower in sugars or isn’t loaded with preservatives and colors.  Reading the label on some children’s cereals is a real eye opener because the ingredients often read more like that of a candy bar and some of the cereals are even named for famous brands of candy.

One option is to choose from the adult cereal classics and add fresh fruit or nuts to the cereal to make it more “kid friendly”. Even though most of the adult brands have some sugars, the amount is considerably lower than “kid’s cereals”. 

Look for high amounts of whole grains and low amounts of sugars!

2.  Buy whole grains!
Whole grains in breakfast cereals typically include whole or cracked wheat, corn, cornmeal, popcorn, brown and colored rice, oatmeal and whole oats, barley, quinoa, spelt, amaranth, buckwheat, bulgur, emmer, farro, and millet. These contain all the essential parts and naturally occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed. The outer skin of the seed is the B vitamin, antioxidant and fiber-rich bran; the germ (or embryo) holds the protein, minerals and healthy fats; and the endosperm (the main part of the grain between the bran and the germ) has the proteins, carbohydrates and smaller quantities of vitamins and minerals. When highly processed, these valuable nutrients and proteins are lost along with healthful fiber which is key to good intestinal health and able to lower cholesterol levels.

Other healthful ingredients in whole grains play an important part in overall health: Antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals and protein in whole grains keep our bodies healthy, operating efficiently and increase our strength.

Research has shown that just three daily servings (or 48 grams) of whole grains can reduce the risk of heart disease by 25 percent to 36 percent, strokes by 37 percent, Type II diabetes by 21 percent to 27 percent, digestive system cancers by 21 percent to 43 percent and hormone-related cancers by 10 percent to 40 percent.

Look for cereals with at least 3 grams of dietary fiber per 1/2 cup serving.

3. Watch out for hidden sugars!
Otherwise known as sucrose, sugar is a carbohydrate that occurs naturally in every fruit and vegetable but occurs in greatest quantities in sugar cane and sugar beets. Many cereals contain a mixture of a variety of sugars (sugar itself, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup or honey) and some even combine one or more of these with artificial sweeteners to reduce the amount of calories – which is why it is important to read BOTH the nutritional facts panel and the ingredients.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is processed from hydrolyzed corn starch is about 75% sweeter than sucrose, a less expensive ingredient than sugar, and mixes well in many foods. Food manufacturers (especially soda and cereal manufacturers) began using HFCS widely in the early 1970s and it was thought of as a revolutionary advance in food science because of its stability and usefulness in a variety of foods.

A teaspoonful of sugar actually contains 16 calories per teaspoon. Sugar metabolizes in our bodies quickly and is broken down in our digestive system into simple sugars and then absorbed to start energy cycles that we need for brain and muscle functions. The sugar that is not used is stored, and converts for later use for energy as glucose or can be converted into other molecules including fat.

The government's dietary "sugar" recommendation is to consume a "moderate" or "sensible" amount of sugar - but what is that? For many nutritionists it means no more than eight grams of sugar to a serving. According to researchers at Kansas State University, we should consume no more than 50 grams of added sugars, or less than four tablespoons of sugar daily, based on the average diet of 2000 calories a day.

And while you are reading that label, be sure to look carefully at the portion size: it can vary from 3/4 of a cup to 1 and 1/2 cups.

My recommendation (yes, even for your kids…) is to buy unsweetened cereals and add a spoonful of white, brown or organic sugar if you want a sweeter taste. If you are buying a presweetened cereal, look for those with 5 grams of sugar per ½ cup serving or less.

4. Want to save money? Try the store brands
The store brand cereals are typically less expensive by a dollar or more. Compare the taste and ingredients - they might not be identical - but if you are watching your budget, the taste difference may not matter. Remember that practically all store brands have money back guarantees, so if you are not satisfied with the taste, bring the unused portion back for a refund.

5. Cereal storage is important! Opened packages should be placed into zip lock bags. Never store cereals in the refrigerator as moisture and odors from other food can be easily absorbed. It’s also important to wrap them tightly to avoid insect infestation, especially over the summer and in warm damp environments.

Shopping for cereal can be confusing, read the labels carefully, know what you are buying and remember a bowl of cereal in the morning can be one of the most nutritious meals of your day. And with the average serving of cereal, fruit and milk costing under a buck, it's also one of the best nutrition values.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .