December 2007

Breakfast Around the World
By Juliann Schaeffer
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 9 No. 12 P. 32

They will not eat it on a train, they will not eat it on a plane; but Brazilians like their bread and jam, sometimes even with cheese and ham. Find out what else is on the morning menu in Brazil and other countries around the globe.

Poached eggs, pancakes … and pizza—American breakfast foods are anything but predictable. “I don’t believe there is what we call ‘typical’ American breakfast foods. It can range from a muffin to a piece of leftover pizza,” says Elena Paravantes, RD, food and nutrition editor for the Greek editions of Men’s Health and Prevention magazines and Greece country representative for the American Overseas Dietetic Association (AODA).

Laura Zubrod, MS, RD, LD, a U.S. AODA country representative, agrees: “A typical breakfast in America is anything but typical. It could occur in the home, in the car, or in the office. Just about anything goes when it comes to breakfast in the United States—from skipping breakfast to last night’s cold pizza to McDonald’s drive-thru. America’s breakfast plate can be quite diverse.

“That diversity is also present in the varied breakfast menus,” she continues, “which can vary from a heavy sit-down meal, prepackaged foods eaten on the run, or skipping breakfast altogether in some cases.”

However, Paravantes notes the following selections seem to be most popular in the U.S. morning routine: eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, waffles, hash browns, cereal, cereal bars, juice, fruit, doughnuts, muffins, toast, English muffins, bagels, French toast, cream cheese, jam, butter, peanut butter, coffee, tea, and smoothies.

Zubrod breaks the American breakfast into two categories: weekday and weekend options. “Traditional foods for the weekday breakfast might include cereal with milk, oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, toast or English muffins topped with margarine and jelly, bagels with cream cheese, muffins, Pop Tarts, yogurt, and fruit such as bananas or berries.

“Weekends bring more traditional and heavier breakfast fare,” she says, “such as eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, pancakes, waffles, French toast, biscuits and gravy, and sectioned grapefruit halves,” noting that breakfast beverages of choice include fruit juices, coffee, and tea.

She also notes that, in addition to lunch and dinner, Americans are bringing fast food’s convenience to the breakfast table: “Americans are eating out more than ever before, and that includes the breakfast meal. Whether it’s a stop at the local drive-thru window or grabbing foods from home to eat in the car or at the office, America is on the run.”

Zubrod illustrates some fast-food varieties that many Americans may be substituting for their all-important first meal of the day: “The typical fast-food restaurant breakfast menu includes the breakfast sandwich, consisting of a croissant, biscuit, bagel, or English muffin topped with egg, cheese, and meat (ham, bacon, or sausage). Other menu staples are breakfast burritos, French toast sticks, pancakes, tater tots, and hash brown patties or cakes.”

Scrambled eggs, scrapple, or simply coffee—most Americans are generally well versed in how essential this morning meal truly is. But just how normal is the United States’ breakfast when compared with the rest of the world? Take your mind for a stroll to find out how the American meal rates in the grand scheme of ham and eggs gone global.

According to Tomomi Serizawa, Japan AODA country representative, unlike the U.S. breakfast, traditional Japanese-style breakfast options mirror what is eaten at other meals and may include items such as steamed rice, miso soup, tsukudani, which are small fish or seaweed served with soy sauce and mirin, sugar, raw or grilled eggs, grilled fish such as dried horse mackerel, or a food called natto. Made from fermented soybeans, natto is a rich source of protein but can be an acquired taste due to its powerful smell, strong flavor, and sticky consistency.

But like many Eastern countries, more Western-style food choices are becoming available every day, and Japan’s younger population is beginning to notice. Serizawa says that young families may enjoy a more Western-style breakfast, with food choices that may include the following: “toast with margarine and jam; salad with tomato, lettuce, cucumber; cooked egg either fried or scrambled; thin-sliced ham; and soup (usually corn soup).

“Some eat cereal, but [because many] Japanese people eat a large amount of carbohydrates, we think light cereal is unsatisfactory,” says Serizawa, adding that the percentage of people partaking in a Japanese-style vs. Western-style breakfast is roughly 50:50.

“It seems that quite a lot [of Japanese people] buy their breakfast at the convenience store—rice balls or sandwiches are also popular. The problem recently is that many [people] skip breakfast,” she says of a disturbing new trend.

“Germans love coffee,” says Mary Norrito-Koller, MS, RD, Germany AODA country representative. She says many people in Germany take their breakfast coffee black, some with milk and sugar, much like in the United States.

Norrito-Koller says carbohydrates are a staple of the early morning meal, with the most popular choices being a roll—usually white—or a slice of bread. “Bread varies because Germany has many different kinds of whole grain breads,” noting that butter and jam are typical bread toppings. “Or, if they don’t eat their bread or roll with butter and jam, they’ll have cheese and luncheon meat instead. Children may eat Nutella, a chocolate-hazelnut spread, on their bread.”

Here too, Western options are popping up as cereals are gaining popularity. “American breakfast cereals are starting to be consumed more and more,” Norrito-Koller says. “In the 20 years I’ve lived in Germany, the options have increased. Twenty years ago, you could only find Corn Flakes. Now you find at least 15 or more different kinds, but mostly sugary ones.” On weekends, Germans generally enjoy a breakfast similar to weekdays “with the addition of eggs and tomato and cucumber slices—and lots of coffee!” she adds.

Hong Kong
“When East meets West, Hong Kong gets more varieties of breakfast,” says Charmain Tan, RD, Hong Kong AODA country representative. With Western styles of eating creeping into the country’s traditional culture, Tan says two distinct breakfast styles are emerging.

The older generation “maintains the Chinese traditional routine by visiting a tea house ‘Yum Cha’ every morning,” Tan says, noting that most people go alone or with their spouse. There, people typically order one or two dim sums with a pot of Chinese tea, generally with free refills. Dim sum is Chinese cuisine that can involve a wide range of light dishes and is usually served in a small bamboo steamer basket or on a small plate.

“On Sundays, these tea houses are packed with families of three generations,” she says, noting that it was common practice for people to read a newspaper or smoke during breakfast. However, “As of January 1, the Hong Kong government has banned smoking in all restaurants, so now restaurants are being enjoyed by even small infants who used to stay at home due to the smoke,” Tan says.

The younger generation, which typically includes workers on the go at breakfast time, may grab a bun with a filling inside from a Chinese bread shop with a box of soy milk or juice drinks. “Or others will have Westernlike fruit muffins or croissants with coffee,” Tan says. “Young children will have a cup of milk or soy milk before leaving home and continue having their breakfast snacks at recess time,” which may include an egg, sandwich, fish ball, or siu mei.

Much like an American coffee shop, Tan also describes “cha chun tien,” a restaurant where a set breakfast is served, including ham and eggs, toast, and milk tea for a light breakfast—or beef steak, pork chop, egg, instant noodles, toast, and milk, tea, or coffee for a heavier meal. And, of course, says Tan, “We also have lots of McDonald’s chains, and its breakfast is especially popular on weekends.”

As in America, Malaysia’s multiethnic culture produces a medley of breakfast options. As Mary Easaw-John, BSc, Malaysia AODA country representative, says, “Be prepared for the amazing varieties.”

To drink, people in Malaysia often have coffee or tea either with condensed milk (known as teh tarik, or pulled tea) or plain black. Other beverage offerings include “malted drinks such as Milo or Horlicks with or without milk, plain barley, Chinese tea, green tea, hot soy drink, fresh juices, and fresh milk,” she says.

According to Easaw-John, many Malaysian breakfast dishes consist of noodles, rice, or another type of carbohydrate as the main ingredient, including the following:

• Noodles soup — with greens, meat pieces, and bean sprouts;

• Fried noodles — with bean sprouts, chives, green mustards, and chicken or pork pieces;

• Rice porridge — eaten plain with fish, salted vegetables, or with chicken or fish seasoned with sesame oil, and spring and fried onions;

• Loh ma kai — glutinous rice fried in garlic and soy sauce with meat and mushrooms, put into moulds, and steamed;

• Nasi lemak — rice cooked in coconut milk, served with fried anchovies, fried peanuts, cucumber slices, and a hot chili sambal, served on a plate or wrapped in a banana leaf; and

• Lontong — rice cakes served in coconut gravy with vegetables such as cabbage, tempeh, long beans, and tofu.

The Malaysian breakfast is also comprised of various dishes similar to the American pancake, although typically with more savory spices and ingredients, including the following:

• Thosai — a crisp, thin pancake made from Bengal gram flour cooked on a griddle, served with coconut chutney or dhal curry;

• Iddlis — small, round, thick steamed pancakes made from Bengal gram flour, served with onion chutney or dhal curry;

• String hopper — round, stringlike pancakes steamed from rice flour and eaten with coconut scrapping and brown sugar;

• Puris — deep-fried wheat pancakes, served with spicy potato gravy;

• Roti jala — pancakes made from wheat flour cooked on a griddle, served with chicken curry; and

• Roti canai — grilled flaky bread with margarine, served with dhal or chicken curry.

Desserts can finish off a Malaysian breakfast meal, including savory kuih, which are fried local desserts made from flour with sardine or chicken fillings. Some simply opt for sandwiches made with sardine, tuna, egg, cheese, sambal filling, and cucumber and tomato slices.

Much like Malaysia, Singapore is also a multiethnic country, and as Natalie Goh, RD, Singapore AODA country representative, says, “We enjoy a variety of breakfast choices—from traditional to fusion-type.”

For working adults who are usually on the go in the early morning hours, breakfast is typically simple (eg, a sandwich or a bun, cereal, or local breakfast items), something that they eat at home or on their way to work, according to Goh, whereas labor workers usually have a heavier breakfast consisting of noodles and rice-based items. Older adults and retirees, since they have more time to spare, usually enjoy a cuppa (a cup of coffee) at a local coffee shop, mingling with friends and reading a newspaper.

On weekends, breakfast in Singapore is usually more sumptuous, with some families gathering for brunch, which means going for dim sum, having a breakfast buffet at a hotel, or eating breakfast at a Western bread shop.

Breakfast at McDonald’s restaurants is also popular on weekends, especially for families with children. “These fast-food outlets are cropping up in almost every part of Singapore,” says Goh, “and are now competing with local food outlets running 24-hour businesses. Almost every [child], without fail, recognizes the famous ‘Mc’ arch.”

Typical breakfast offerings mirror many Malaysian foods and can include the following additional dishes:

• Bread buns — plain or with a variety of fillings, including hot dog, meat floss, red bean, tuna, curry potato, or cheese;

• Pau — steamed wheat bread with meat, vegetable, red bean, or sweet lotus paste fillings;

• Chwee kueh — steamed rice cakes served with preserved salted vegetables;

• Soon kueh — steamed rice cakes with shredded vegetable and dried prawn fillings, served with sweet black sauce and chili;

• Kaya toast — a local bread spread made from coconut milk, egg yolk, and sugar on toast, with or without soft-boiled eggs; and

• Roti prata — pan-fried pancake made with flour, served with dhal curry and/or sugar, possibly with egg, durian, cheese, or onion as fillings.

In Sweden, a typical breakfast includes one or two slices of bread with margarine and cheese, smoked ham, or turkey. “We eat this like an open sandwich,” says Maria Gustafsson, RD, Sweden AODA country representative. “Some take a fruit or juice or add some slices of bell peppers, tomatoes, or cucumbers on their sandwiches, but it is probably more who don’t than do,” she says of the nutrition value of Sweden’s breakfast.

However, she says the prevalence “of whole grain bread is increasing,” and coffee and tea are breakfast drinks of choice for many. A bowl of yogurt or cultured milk called filmjölk is also popular, as well as cereals such as Corn Flakes and Musli. With most people eating between 6 am and 8 am, “the breakfast climate depends on where you live and work,” Gustafsson says.

For Swedish working men and women, the morning atmosphere can look very similar to what many Americans wake up to. “Myself, living in the capital of Stockholm, 47% [of people live in] single households, and lots are workaholics, so breakfast is usually on the run or in a café or 7-Eleven. Our yogurt is in a bottle, the sandwich ready-made, and—of course—a coffee ‘to go.’

“In smaller cities and towns, the climate is usually breakfast with the whole family or while reading newspapers,” she adds. “Most people outside the big cities don’t have long commutes, so breakfast is often better and with their children.”

To note, Gustafsson says, “This is a Swedish breakfast, not a Scandinavian or Nordic breakfast. They eat differently in Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland.”

Breakfast is a simple affair in Brazil, with characteristic foods including bread and jam, sometimes with cheese and ham, and fresh fruit. Baguettes, brioches, cheese buns, sweet and salted biscuits, yogurt, and cereal may also be eaten in the morning. Risolis (a fried croquet) and pastries are also offered as breakfast dishes, usually filled with savory ingredients such as fish or meat. Tropical fruit juices are typical beverages, along with the all-popular coffee drinks—hot espresso-based drinks made with milk.

Brazilians tend to drink small—but potent—cups of coffee all day long at lanchonetes (snack bars) and juice bars. To note, however, when stopping at one of these bars, it is general practice to stand around until your food or drink is finished. As a rule, Brazilians do not eat while walking down the street or while riding public transportation. Brazilians generally find it rude to eat in places that are not meant specifically for eating.

Health Value
So when comparing the American breakfast to those around the world, how does the United States stack up? “Coffee and donuts is probably the most traditional and least nutritious quick breakfast for Americans,” says Zubrod. “Fortunately, food companies are now catering to America’s busy lifestyle and providing more healthful options. You’ll find quick, [nutritious] breakfast foods in just about every aisle of the grocery store,” including cereal bars, muffin bars, prepackaged muffins, yogurt drinks, and fruit.

Paravantes says the nutritional value of the U.S. breakfast depends “on what one chooses. For example, the large traditional U.S. breakfast of pancakes, bacon, and eggs is obviously not a very healthy choice, considering it is high in saturated fat, processed carbohydrates, and calories. On the other hand, a breakfast of oatmeal and fruit can be very healthy.

“Breakfasts from other parts of the world, excluding the United Kingdom and Canada, tend to be smaller but not necessarily healthier,” she says. “I think American breakfasts have the added benefit that you have so much to choose from—finding a healthy breakfast is easy, but at the same time, finding an unhealthy breakfast is easy, too.”

Looking East, Asian countries may stay healthy by treating breakfast like any other meal. “In Japan, they eat fish in the morning in a similar way that it is eaten during the rest of the day. In this sense, breakfast can be a balanced meal because it contains a combination of carbohydrates, protein, and vegetables. American and Western breakfasts tend to include starchy, sweet food items such as donuts, toast with jelly, muffins, cookies, and croissants that are not the best items to eat for breakfast as they can cause blood sugar spikes and low energy levels the rest of the day,” says Paravantes.

Morning Lessons
When it comes to the most important meal of the day, as Americans—especially dietitians—see breakfast to be, there may be lessons to be learned all around. Noting an area where Paravantes believes the American breakfast could use a makeover, she says: “I think Americans can learn from other countries by focusing on simplicity and freshness. With so many choices of processed and ready-to-eat foods, breakfast has become a complicated matter in the United States. Replacing processed foods with fresh, unprocessed foods would increase the nutritional value of breakfast. Sometimes, all you need is a piece of whole wheat bread, some cheese, and tomato, and you can have a complete breakfast.”

However, Paravantes is quick to note that the rest of the world could benefit from the United States in regard to educating its public about the importance of this meal. When it comes to understanding the power of breakfast, which in many cultures is still ignored, Americans win first prize. “I think many countries are starting to see breakfast as the most important meal of the day. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they eat [according to this notion].”

Traditionally, breakfast is not a big meal in countries such as France, Italy, Spain, and Greece, she says, so it is not always a matter of acknowledging the importance of breakfast but actually changing cultural habits. “It seems that a breakfast consumed in America is seen as an opportunity to fit in some nutrients that perhaps may not fit in during the rest of the day—for example, fiber, fruits, and whole grains. In other countries, this is not always the case, as more importance is given to other meals of the day,” she explains.

And because several countries, such as Greece and Spain, have late dinners, many people are not as hungry in the morning and end up eating a small breakfast or nothing at all. “I would say the unhealthiest morning routine is one that includes no breakfast,” says Paravantes. “Studies have shown that a bad breakfast is better than no breakfast. So I would say that cultures that only have coffee for breakfast have the unhealthiest routines. In general, a great percentage of Mediterranean countries have this habit. In Greece, for example, about 50% of the population only has coffee for breakfast.”

If given the opportunity to gather your breakfast from a globe of offerings, where would your feet lead you? Paravantes says, “probably Spain. The combination of bread, olive oil, and tomato is based on the beneficial Mediterranean diet—and also because their breakfasts are simple, easy, and healthy. But I would replace the traditional Spanish ham with some turkey or low-fat cheese.” Spoken like a true dietitian.

For more information on food and nutrition around the world, visit the American Overseas Dietetic Association’s Web site at

— Juliann Schaeffer is an editorial assistant at Today’s Dietitian.