What Does a Good Breakfast Cereal Look Like?

Last month we looked at peanut butters and how quite a few have unnecessary oils and sugars added to them. This time, we focus on another staple food – breakfast cereals.

Cereals like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and General Mills’ Cheerios have been breakfast table regulars for nearly a century. Many of us think of them as a healthy way to start the day. After all, several are made from whole grains, contain a good amount of fiber and feature several vitamins and minerals. These attributes are generally considered good for us, so it should follow that the foods also are healthy.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

The truth is these cereals can be a part of a nutritious breakfast. But many have added nutrients and ingredients that undermine their nutritional value and may even make them altogether unhealthy for us. So how do we know which ones are good? One way is to know what they shouldn’t have – and check the label. Here’s what to avoid:

No Overfortification

Many people don’t realize that consuming excessive amounts of some nutrients can be harmful. In a 2014 report, EWG found that an alarmingly large number of cereals contain added micronutrients such as vitamin A, zinc and niacin in amounts higher than the Institute of Medicine (a branch of the National Academy of Sciences) recommends.

Many cereals advertise their added vitamins and minerals and entice the public into eating too much of these nutrients. This is especially problematic for children. In fact, nearly half of all children ages 2-to-8 are estimated to consume more than what the Institute calls “Tolerable Upper Intake Levels” for vitamin A, zinc or niacin. The result can be health complications such as brittle nails, hair loss, anemia, suppressed immune function and skin rashes.

No Harmful Preservatives

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and its chemical cousin Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are common preservatives added to many breakfast cereals and their packaging. That’s not a good thing. The National Toxicology Program classifies BHA as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” the International Cancer Agency categorizes it as a possible human carcinogen and the European Union says it can disrupt the body’s endocrine (hormone) system. BHT is not officially classified as any of these, but it has shown similar toxicity and endocrine-disrupting activity in several studies.

No Large Amounts of Sugar

An EWG report on children’s cereals revealed that cereals marketed for kids have more than 40 percent more sugar than adult cereals. In fact, a single serving of the most sugary products exceeded 60 percent of the maximum daily amount of sugar recommended by authoritative health agencies. Since many kids eat more than one serving at a single sitting – because cereal nutrition labels often list very small serving sizes – the amount of sugar they consume is even higher.

No Artificial Colors

Further exacerbating this problem, breakfast cereals marketed for children often contain artificial colors and dyes. Synthetic Food, Drug & Cosmetics colors have been linked to behavioral disorders in some children. The European Food Safety Authority concluded that synthetic colors may have a “small and statistically significant effect on activity and attention in children.” This effect may be of even greater concern for certain extra-sensitive individuals.

A healthy breakfast cereal should avoid all these ingredients. Armed with this information, we can make informed purchases for our family and ourselves. To make things even easier, EWG compiled the list below of the top 10 best breakfast cereals for the entire family, from the eldest to the youngest.

When shopping, remember to avoid overfortified products, cereals with BHA or BHT and those with insanely high amounts of sugar or artificial colors.

Use EWG’s Food Scores database to sort through the wide choices of breakfast cereals and find the best ones. For mobile users, Food Scores is now incorporated into EWG’s Healthy Living app, which rates nearly 130,000 food and personal care products at your fingertips. Use all of these tools to make the best choices when it comes to breakfast cereals.

*List was compiled to illustrate a variety of different cereals as well as to reflect both organic and conventional options.

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