Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Healthy Alternatives: Cereals Edition

I'd guess that most Americans have a bowl of cereal in the morning for breakfast. Cereals is the quintessential breakfast food--it's quick, easy, and tastes pretty darn good. Unfortunately, many of the mainstream brands are loaded with refined carbs and sugars! 

I write for a student-run magazine called Total Wellness. The new issue, "Doctor Yourself," was just released; check it out here in e-mag form! (yay for going green!) In my article, I take a look at a few popular cereals and offer healthier alternatives. Here's the rundown:

Research shows again and again that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Nevertheless, your choice of breakfast food is important; while a healthy meal can kick-start your metabolism and give you energy for the rest of the day, an unhealthy breakfast leave you hungry by mid-morning. Cereal is a quick and convenient option for many students, but selecting a nutritious cereal is not a straightforward process.

One way to determine the healthiness of a cereal, and of food in general, is to consider its glycemic index. The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly carbohydrates break down into sugar and raise blood glucose levels. High GI foods result in spikes in blood sugar levels that are linked to conditions such as type II diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. In addition, profuse consumption of high GI foods increases body fat and decreases metabolic rate. Thus, it is wise to limit the amount of high GI foods you eat. In contrast, low GI foods tend to be higher in fiber and protein and take longer to digest than high GI foods, which keeps you fuller longer.

Some breakfast cereals you may have loved as a child are notorious for being high GI foods, loaded with added sugars and low in fiber. Luckily, there are many options and alternatives in the aisles of supermarkets and health stores alike.

Choosing a healthy cereal can be a difficult task. In the cereal aisle with hundreds of colorfully packaged products, it can be confusing and overwhelming to find a healthful choice. As a guideline, look for:
- whole grains: like oats, whole wheat, brown rice, and rye at the top of the ingredients list
-high fiber content: preferably at least 5 grams per serving
-no more than 10 grams of added sugar. Watch for sugar’s many names including the following: high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, fructose, sucrose, malt flavoring, cane syrup, corn sweetener, agave nectar, cane juice, dextrose, molasses, and fruit juice concentrate.

Make sure to keep in mind that the nutrition facts are for one serving size, and what you consume for breakfast might constitute more than ¾ to 1 cup of cereal. Denser, heavier cereals tend to be more calorie-heavy but more filling than puffs, so also factor that in to your choice.

Nutritional value is not the only thing to consider when searching for a cereal. In addition, keep an eye out for non-food ingredients such as preservatives and artificial colors, as some can be hazardous to your health. Here we’ve taken a look at some of the most popular children’s cereals and how you can find healthier alternatives to mix with your milk in the morning.

Reese’s Puffs
Nutrition Facts: in ¾ cup: 22 g carbohydrates, 12 g sugar, 3.5 g fat, 1 g fiber, 2 g protein
The Lowdown: As to be expected of a cereal made to taste like its namesake candy, Reese’s Puffs contains a high amount of sugar, is made from no whole grains, and a quarter of its calories are from fat.

Alternative: Envirokidz Leapin’ Lemurs Cereal, made by Nature’s Path Organics has the same peanut butter and cocoa flavors as Reese’s Puffs, but is made with all organic ingredients and has no artificial coloring. It has eight grams of sugar compared to the 12 grams in Reese’s Puffs, and has only a total of one and a half grams of fat. The puffs are made from whole grain corn meal, which provides more fiber than the conventional Reese’s Puffs. In addition, it uses natural vitamin E rather than chemical preservatives to prolong its shelf life.

Lucky Charms
Nutrition Facts: in ¾ cup: 22 g carbohydrates, 10 g sugar, 2 g fiber, 2 g protein
The Lowdown: The largest health concern with Lucky Charms deals with the characteristic marshmallows that give the cereal its unique shapes and colors. The marshmallows contain the synthetic colors Yellows 5 and 6, Blue 1, and Red 40, and artificial flavors. The CSPI’s findings suggest that Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Red 40 contain contaminants that are carcinogenic and may cause hyperactivity in children, and is currently calling on the FDA to ban these dyes. Whether or not they actually do cause cancer, these artificial colors are common allergens and give many people adverse effects. While this issue is far from being resolved, artificial coloring is something many people are concerned about when buying processed foods. Nutritionally, Lucky Charms are sugar-heavy and full of refined carbohydrates.

Alternative: The marshmallows of Three Sisters Marshmallow Oaties may not have colors that are quite as vibrant as those of Lucky Charms, but they do not contain any artificial colors. Instead, they are dyed with blueberry, pumpkin, and carrot concentrates. Regardless, both types of marshmallows are high in sugar making them high GI foods, and do not constitute a very sustaining or healthy breakfast. It’s wise to limit the amount of high GI food you consume; instead, fill up with fiber-rich and whole-grain fare. The main difference between this Lucky Charms and this product is the presence or absence of artificial ingredients. As an added bonus, however, Three Sisters cereals come in bags rather than boxes, which is a greener packaging method for the environmentally friendly consumer.

Cinnamon Toast Crunch
Nutrition Facts: in ¾ cup: 25 g carbohydrates, 10 g sugar, 2 g fiber, 1.6 g protein
The Lowdown: Although Cinnamon Toast Crunch is not the worst in terms of nutrition among these conventional cereals, it makes a significant dent into the recommended daily allowances set by the American Heart Association (AHA). The AHA recommends only six teaspoons of added sugar per day for women, nine teaspoons for men, and four teaspoons for children ages four to eight; just one serving of Cinnamon Toast Crunch contains about two and a half teaspoons of simple sugars. It also contains 15% of the recommended daily sodium intake, a significant portion for only ¾ cup of cereal. According to Time Magazine, this cereal has the most television advertisements aimed at children out of a group of ten evaluated cereals, with six 11 year-olds seeing an average of 82 commercials for Cinnamon Toast Crunch throughout a 15-month study. It is no wonder that unhealthy habits start early, and the effects of those choices can carry on to adult life.

Alternative: Cascadian Farm Organic Cinnamon Crunch has the same flavors as Cinnamon Toast Crunch but is made of whole grain wheat, rice, and oat fibers, which adds some variety to the corn and wheat-heavy American diet. Although it is still coated with sugar, it has a few less grams of sugar and carbohydrates than the amount present in Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Rice Krispies
Nutrition Facts: in 1 ¼ cup: 29 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 0.3 g fiber, 2.6 g protein
The Lowdown: Although this cereal is not very sweet relative to others, three out of the five ingredients in Rice Krispies are sugar: sugar, malt flavoring, and high-fructose corn syrup. High-fructose corn syrup is of particular concern. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that a diet rich in high-fructose corn syrup drinks significantly increased cardiovascular disease risk factors in young adults as opposed to normal glucose. Although Rice Krispies is fortified with vitamins and minerals like many other cereals, fortification should not take the place of a well-balanced diet. In addition, it is deficient in fiber.

Alternative: The Whole Foods Brand 365 Organic Brown Rice Crisps is sweetened with organic cane syrup, which is, although still a type of sugar, less processed than high-fructose corn syrup. More notably, however, this cereal is made of popped whole grain brown rice rather than white rice, which provides 2 grams of fiber compared to negligible amount in Rice Krispies. Its greater fiber content makes it a slightly better choice, although it lacks in significant vitamins and minerals.

Cap’n Crunch
Nutrition Facts: in ¾ cup: 23 g carbohydrates, 12 g sugar, 0.7 g fiber, 1.2 g protein
The Lowdown: Although it claims to be a “nutritious and easy-to-prepare breakfast,” Cap’n Crunch is made with only refined, not whole, grains. This is a marker of a high GI food, as the refined grains are simple carbohydrates. Combined with the high sugar and low fiber content, a breakfast of Cap’n Crunch will digest quickly and although it may give you an initial boost of energy, it will likely leave you hungry within a few hours.

Alternative: Kashi Squares in the Honey Sunshine provide a light, honey-flavored option to the classic Cap’n Crunch. Most notably, it incorporates a wide variety of grains including whole grain corn meal, wheat, barley, oats, rye, brown rice, triticale, buckwheat, and sunflower seeds. These whole grains introduce diversity into your breakfast, and fill the cereal with more than 21% of one’s daily value of fiber compared to the 3% offered by refined flours. It also has half the amount of sugar present in Cap’n Crunch.

Of course, each cereal has its own unique, distinctive texture and sugar content. If you are looking for an option with minimal added sugars and artificial colors and high fiber content, then there are many healthier alternatives to choose from. You can also make your cereal bowl healthier by using low-fat or skim milk and topping it with fruit or nuts.

I used to eat cereal all the time, but have since realized that a bowl of cereal is not too substantial! I tend to eat oatmeal or eggs more often for breakfast nowadays. (see my "quickie oatcakes" post) However, these above-mentioned cereals are a bit healthier than the mainstream brands; try something new if cereal is your go-to breakfast!

1 comment:

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