Ready-to-Eat Breakfast Cereals
By Densie Webb, PhD, RD
Vol. 25 No. 8 P. 24
Expert Strategies to Help Clients Choose Healthful Options
The adage “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” is a truism that has been held for years, and there’s research to suggest there may be something to those words.1 If breakfast is, indeed, the most important meal of the day, it stands to reason why ready-to-eat (RTE) cereals have been dubbed by some as the king of the breakfast table and that nine in 10 Americans say they’ve eaten RTE cereals for breakfast, according to Mintel Group, a market research firm. RTE cereals also are growing as a snack food, as 43% of those surveyed by Mintel have eaten RTE cereal as a snack.2 The most recent Mintel report predicted the cereal market will grow by 18% in the next five years, reaching $160 billion by 2028.3
Breakfast cereals are quick, convenient, relatively inexpensive per serving, and many provide a bevy of added and naturally occurring nutrients. “As a registered dietitian and busy mom, I often recommend cereal as a convenient way to add a few extra nutrients to breakfast,” says Andrea Mathis, MA, RDN, LD, owner of Beautiful Eats & Things and author of The Complete Book of Smoothies: 115 Healthy Recipes to Nourish, Heal, and Energize. While the outcome depends on the type of cereal consumed, a study using NHANES 2015–2016 data found that children who consume RTE cereal had 29% higher total dairy intake, 61% higher whole grain intake, and a higher diet quality overall than children who didn’t eat RTE cereal.4
Cereals are made from processed grains, including wheat, rice, and oats, and can be puffed, flaked, or shredded with any number of added nutrients. But not all RTE cereals are nutritionally equal. A significant percentage contain unhealthful levels of added sugars. Perhaps more than any other product category, RTE cereals vary tremendously in almost every nutrient—calories, protein, sugars, fats, and fiber, not to mention the great variations in number and amounts of vitamins and minerals listed on the Nutrition Facts panel. Then there’s the question of whether a cereal is organic, certified kosher, vegan, non-GMO, or gluten-free, which isn’t indicated in the chart but is displayed on the product label. There are more than enough products from which to choose. The Post brand alone lists 27 lines of cereal on its website, and within each line, there may be at least three or four distinct variations, offering everything from healthful high fiber cereals to sugar-laden cereals for children. The cereal aisle in most supermarkets typically offers more choices than any other section, making it difficult for clients and patients to make healthful choices that align with their health goals, tastes, and budgets. “RTE cereal is one of the few foods enjoyed by people across the different stages of life,” says Vandana R. Sheth, RDN, CDCES, FAND, a Los Angeles-based nutrition counselor and owner of a private practice. “Since cost is a growing concern for many people, cereal can be a cost-effective way to get many key nutrients.”
The chart provided serves as a sample of the types of RTE cereal brands, varieties, and nutrition profiles available on the market. The chart groups them according to major selling points: high fiber, high protein, granolas, and children’s. Some of the categories and nutrient attributes in the chart overlap. For example, a cereal may be in the high fiber section but also is high in protein. Another cereal may be grouped in the high fiber category but also contains as much sugar as one of the children’s cereals. Few cereals are easily classified. Here’s a discussion on the average serving sizes and nutrients RTE cereals contain.
• Serving Size. None of the nutrients found in RTE cereals can be discussed without factoring in serving sizes, which vary greatly. Serving sizes in the chart range from 1/2 cup to 11/3 cups—almost a three-fold difference. Some products not in the chart but available at the supermarket suggest a serving as small as 1/4 cup. Often, the more calorie-dense the cereal, the smaller the serving size, as is the case with granolas. Clients and patients should be aware of the differences. If, for example, they’re focusing only on fewer calories on the Nutrition Facts panel and dish up a large serving, the calorie count for breakfast will be much larger than intended. “Each person has different needs, and their portions are likely to differ from what’s the suggested serving size,” says Sue-Ellen Anderson Haynes, MS, RDN, CDCES, CPT, LDN, founder of 360Girls&Women, LLC, in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, a private practice offering holistic health and wellness services for girls and women. But the serving size isn’t always indicative of the nutrient contribution. Some cereals that suggest smaller servings still contribute significant amounts of a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. “I view serving sizes as a guide, not as a ‘rule.’ We all have different nutritional needs,” Mathis says.
• Calories. The calorie levels of the cereals in the chart, which are representative of all RTE cereals, range from a low of 90 kcal for a 2/3-cup serving to a high of 280 kcal per 1/2-cup serving—a three-fold difference in calorie counts.
• Protein. There aren’t a large number of cereals that boast a high-protein content. The few listed in the chart range from 10 to 20 g protein per serving. However, several other cereals considered high fiber also provide as much as 11 g protein per serving.
• Carbohydrates. All cereals are rich sources of carbohydrates, but many are refined, which can cause blood glucose levels to spike, especially if eaten as a snack without milk. Anderson Haynes emphasizes that, in fact, many cereals are considered to be ultraprocessed foods. Consumption of ultraprocessed foods has been associated with several chronic health conditions, including hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and dementia. But other cereals are less refined and are excellent sources of fiber. The carbohydrate contents of the cereals in the chart range from 14 g per serving (for a high-protein cereal) to 54 g per serving for an organic, multigrain cereal.
• Added Sugars. The grams of added sugars per serving are listed under carbohydrates, but it wasn’t always that way. Added sugars became a part of the Nutrition Facts panel in 2016 when the FDA revamped the label, changing how nutrition information was listed, rearranging the order in which it was listed, and providing the amount of added sugars per serving in a product. The cereals in the chart range from 0 g to 16 g (4 tsp) per serving of added sugars. While it isn’t surprising that, of the cereals in the chart, a children’s cereal contained the most added sugars, surprisingly, three high fiber cereals contained almost as much added sugars (12 g to 15 g per serving). “A rule of thumb is to choose cereals, granolas, etc, with 5% of the Daily Value (DV) or less of added sugars per serving,” Anderson Haynes says. “The American Heart Association sets a daily sugar limit to 38 g (9 tsp) for men, 24 g (6 tsp) for women, and less than 24 g (6 tsp) for children aged 6 to 18. Several cereals provide as much as one-half the daily recommended limit in a single serving.
• Sodium. RTE cereals usually aren’t considered a sodium source to be concerned about. But while they don’t contain as much sodium as fast food or chips, if sodium is severely restricted, it’s important to be aware of the sodium content of RTE cereals, which ranges from 0 mg per serving to 280 mg per serving for those in the chart. Some products available in the supermarket contain even more.
• Vitamins and minerals. RTE cereal is an important source of nutrients in the American diet.5 The chart lists only those nutrients that are 20% DV or higher—the amount that the FDA considers a “high” level of a nutrient. Other nutrients than those listed often are present but in “low” amounts—5% DV or less, according to the FDA. Of the cereals in the chart, none of the levels of vitamins and minerals in 10 of them were enough to be classified as “high” levels. The nutrients present at high levels are mostly the result of fortification. Most cereals are fortified with multiple nutrients. Iron is the nutrient that cereals are most often fortified with, followed by the B vitamins, folate, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin. A few provide high levels of vitamin C, copper, or manganese. Consumers may be surprised to find that several cereals thought to be the most healthful often aren’t fortified at all and, as a result, are low in several nutrients. For example, granolas and organic cereals typically aren’t fortified, and while they may be high in fiber or low in sugar, they fail to provide much in the way of vitamins and minerals. Calcium isn’t a nutrient found in cereals, but adding cow’s milk or a calcium-fortified plant milk will add that mineral. Data from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study show that after adjusting for energy intake, cereal consumption was related to an increased intake of fiber, calcium, iron, folic acid, vitamin C, and zinc, as well as a decreased intake of fat and cholesterol.6
However, not all nutrition experts agree that RTE cereals are a good choice for breakfast or snacks. “I would not recommend RTE cereals as a good breakfast choice for several reasons,” Anderson Haynes says. “First, they digest quickly, raising blood sugar quickly, often leaving you unsatisfied.” Instead, she recommends quick-fix alternatives, such as a protein smoothie or a yogurt bowl with fruit, nuts, and seeds.
Studying the effects of RTE cereal intake on health is tricky because of the huge variation in RTE cereal products. Studies are limited to examining populations and surveying RTE cereal consumption or high fiber cereal consumption vs health parameters such as blood glucose or cholesterol. The effect on diseases, such as CVD, type 2 diabetes, or cancer, are also population studies. Clinical studies that would focus on the health effects of specific types of RTE cereals are impractical because of the cost of conducting such long-term studies, and findings may not be applicable to all RTE cereals.
A prospective study from Harvard School of Public Health several years ago suggested that eating cereal fiber was a potentially protective factor against death from CVD, respiratory disease, and infections.7 A systematic review of the available evidence in 2014 found that regular RTE breakfast cereal consumption was associated with a lower BMI and less risk of overweight or obesity.1 The review also found that RTE cereal consumption was associated with diets that were lower in fat but not with increased intakes of sodium or energy and that regular consumption helped to ensure adequate nutrient intake and suggested that it may help to reduce the risk of developing CVD or diabetes.
Since there are so many RTE cereals on the market, the following tips can help RDs educate clients on what to look for and consider next time they’re in the grocery store.
• Counsel clients and patients to ignore the meaning behind a cereal that has the term “nature” or “fruit” in its title. While these terms give consumers the impression the products are healthful, they’re not an indication that they’re healthful or more healthful than those that don’t boast those claims. Neither does containing the word “organic” in the name always indicate a more healthful nutrition profile. Some organic cereals, especially granolas, can be high in added sugars. A recent study from Columbia, South America, found that “nearly all” RTE cereals with nutrition and nature-related claims were high in calories and sugars.8 The truth resides on Nutrition Facts panels and ingredient labels.
• Recommend adding toppings to increase the nutritional value of RTE cereals. “A few add-ons that I recommend to clients include seeds (chia, flax, pumpkin, sunflower), nuts (almonds, pistachios, walnuts, pecans), fruits (berries, chopped apple, sliced banana), and spices (cinnamon or a splash of vanilla),” Sheth says.
• Remind clients and patients that the total calorie count and nutrient content will depend on whether they add whole milk, skim milk, almond milk, oat milk, or soy milk to their cereal. Some Nutrition Facts panels provide nutrition for both dry cereal and a serving of the cereal with cow’s milk.
• Give examples of RTE cereals that are high in fiber but not high in added sugars. And show them how to identify added sugars on the labels of RTE cereals.
• Suggest RTE cereals that are fortified with several vitamins and minerals if clients want a vitamin and mineral boost.
Most nutrition experts agree that, when chosen wisely, RTE cereals offer a convenient, nutritious option for breakfast and snacks. The RTE cereal products to choose from can be overwhelming for clients and patients—and even for RDs. New products are constantly being introduced. It’s important to keep on top of what’s in the cereal aisle. Counseling those clients and patients who make RTE cereals a regular part of their diets on how to choose the best options for their tastes and health goals can have a positive effect on their vitamin, mineral, and fiber intakes.
— Densie Webb, PhD, RD, is a freelance writer, editor, and industry consultant based in Austin, Texas.
1. Williams PG. The benefits of breakfast cereal consumption: a systematic review of the evidence base. Adv Nutr. 2014;5(5):636S-673S.
2. 43% of US cereal consumers eat cereal as a snack at home. Mintel website. https://www.mintel.com/press-centre/43-of-us-cereal-consumers-eat-cereal-as-a-snack-at-home. Published October 17, 2017.
3. Mintel Group LLC. Executive Summary Hot and Cold Cereal US, 2023
4. Smith JD, Zhu Y, Vanage V, Jain N, Holschuh N, Hermetet Agler A. Association between ready-to-eat cereal consumption and nutrient intake, nutritional adequacy, and diet quality among infants, toddlers, and children in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2015-2016. Nutrients. 2019;11(9):1989.
5. Smith JD, Jain N, Bailey RL. Ready-to-eat cereal fortification: a modelling study on the impact of changing ready-to-eat cereal fortification levels on population intake nutrients. Public Health Nutr. 2020;23(12):2165-2178.
6. Barton BA, Eldridge AL, Thompson D, et al. The relationship of breakfast and cereal consumption to nutrient intake and body mass index: the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study. J Am Diet Assoc. 2005;105(9):1383-1389.
7. Huang T, Xu M, Lee A, Cho S, Qi L. Consumption of whole grains and cereal fiber and total and cause-specific mortality: prospective analysis of 367,442 individuals. BMC Med. 2015;13:59.
8. Parra-Murillo M, Lowery CM, Gomez LF, Mora-Plasa M, Smith Taille L, Dillman Carpentier FR. Claims on ready-to-eat cereals: are those with claims healthier? Front Nutr. 2021;8:770489.