Heart Healthy Cereal: The Sweet Spot Sixteen

ByAgnes E. Utt

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Cereal isn’t often thought of as a wholesome food these days, but actually some cereals are mostly whole grain and deliver a hefty dose of heart-healthy fibre. They’re also a fine vehicle for fruit, nuts, and seeds, as I illustrated in last year’s diabetes-friendly breakfast makeover. And when it’s hot or you’re in a hurry, let’s face it, a bowl of cereal hits the spot.

I originally wrote this review over six years ago, and it was popular. There are more cereal fans out there thank you might think!

Since then, some of the products I highlighted have been discontinued and new ones added, so with the help of Acadia dietetic student Christyna Dashko, I’ve updated it.

We used the following criteria. (See below for an explanation of the criteria, if you’re interested.)

The first ingredient is a whole grain (or bran).

No more than 8g of sugar (2 teaspoons worth) per serving.

At least 4g of fibre per serving.

No more than 140mg of sodium / serving.

The Sweet Spot Sixteen

There are A LOT of products to choose from! Superstore’s website lists 84 “health” cereals alone! (This doesn’t include hot cereals. See my oatmeal review for that.)

Christyna and I scoured the cereal aisle and could only find 17 that met the criteria. So if you don’t have all day to stand around the cereal aisle reading labels, this should make it easier.

(When I first wrote this I found 16 cereals that met the criteria. This time there were 17, but “Sweet Spot Seventeen” doesn’t have the same ring does it? But I couldn’t find it in my heart to toss one.)

Click on an image below if you want to see the picture better. And note that these are the Canadian versions. Some products may vary in the United States and elsewhere.)

What if your favourite cereal isn’t there?

If you’re favourite cereal didn’t make the cut, no worries! Quite a few came close enough that you could certainly keep them in the mix if you like.

If you like a cereal that has a bit more sugar, you could always have it anyhow. Not the end of the world — it’s your overall eating pattern matters.

Or perhaps a smaller portion, perhaps combined with a generous handful of almonds or walnuts. Or if you’re keen for a bigger bowl, perhaps combine a higher-sugar cereal with something like Spoon Size Shredded Wheat, which has no sugar or sodium.

If your favourite is a bit above the sodium target of 140mg, consider the rest of your sodium for the day. If you’re cooking most of your own food, maybe you can afford it. (About 75% of our sodium comes from restaurant and processed food.)

If you like something like Cheerios with not quite enough fibre, you could always have it with a couple of spoonfuls of something like All Bran Buds or Fibre 1. Or top with raspberries, a particularly high-fibre fruit.

Popular cereals that didn’t make the list

Following are a collection of cereals I hear about often from clients, including many sold at the ever-popular Costco.

Unfortunately, not one of the cold cereals I could find at our local Costco met the criteria! Too high in sugar or sodium, or low in fibre. 🙁

  • I used to have All Bran Buds on the list, but I lowered the sodium target to 140mg, to be in line with the Health Canada “low sodium” level, so that knocked it out.

    This one is really more of a fibre supplement though, with an impressive 11 grams of fibre per serving, about three grams of which is cholesterol-lowering soluble fibre. If that’s important to you, ground flax, chia seeds, psyllium husks, and oatmeal are lower-sodium sources.

    Or you could just a smaller portion. If the serving size was 1/4 cup (instead of 1/3 cup), the sodium would be low enough, and the fibre still an impressive eight grams. Or have a couple of tablespoons of All Bran Buds on yogurt or a lower-sodium cereal.

  • The Kirkland Signature Organic Ancient Grains with Probiotic Granola has 19 grams of sugar per serving, and 240mg of sodium. That’s a lot! It would be like adding five teaspoons of sugar to something like Shredded Wheat. The serving size is a whole cup, though, so if you like this one, perhaps more of a sprinkle than a meal.
  • Quaker Harvest Crunch Original Granola Cereal. Again, over the sugar target, by even more. Plus quite a bit of saturated fat, not something we usually bother with for cereal.
  • Post Cranberry Almond Crunch. Again, sugar. And sodium. I see this one so often on food records! People see almonds and cranberry and think it must be heart-healthy. Sorry.
  • Raisin Bran. A bit high in sugar, plus, the sodium is more than ten percent of a day’s worth. From cereal!

 

  • Cheerios are close, but no cigar. The fibre just isn’t high enough, not even in the Multi-Grain Cheerios. However, points for being made of oats, which means it’s partly soluble fibre with cholesterol-lowering potential. Would be nice if there were more of it, that’s all. Try one of the 17 cereals above. There are even a couple similar to Cheerios.

 

  • Special K. Despite all of the advertising targeted at women and weight loss, this cereal is a lightweight. Look at the ingredients list.

Rice, as in white rice. If it doesn’t say brown rice, or indicate a whole grain of some sort, it’s not. And the nutrition facts:

No fibre. That’s right, zero! They have a lot of nerve marketing that as a healthy cereal. (Pet peeve alert.)

  • Kashi Go Lean Crunch. There’s a health halo over the Kashi brand, but it’s just a Kellogg’s product. The whole grains are nice, but that’s quite a bit of sugar for just 3/4 cup of cereal. As a rule, anything called “crunch” will be higher in sugar.

Again, if we’ve just given you bad news about your favourite cereal, don’t worry. You can always combine with a higher fibre, lower sugar/sodium product, or experiment with those on the “Sweet Spot Sixteen” (17) list. You’re bound to find one in there that you like.

An Explanation of the Criteria

For the nutrition geeks out there, here’s a bit more of an explanation of the criteria:

  • The first ingredient is a whole grain or bran. Claims on the front of the package can be misleading, but if you see the word “whole” in the first ingredient, you’re on the right track. I’m including “wheat bran” and “oat bran” too, although they’re not technically whole grain, but rather the highest fibre part of the grain. If you’re not sure whether an ingredient is a whole grain, you can check here.
Healthy Cereals: Ingredients in All-Bran Flakes

Kellogg’s All-Bran Flakes

  • It contains 8g or less sugar per serving. See how the third ingredient above is sugar? If you see that, ask the question, “How much though?” The nutrition facts panel will tell you.

Ideally, less than 5% of our calories would come from “added” or “free” sugar, which amounts to about 25g, if you’re eating about 2000 calories. (There are 4g in a teaspoon, so that’s about six teaspoons, over the course of a day.) If you go over 8g, or two teaspoons, as many cereals do, it starts to become quite a portion of your sugar budget. Doesn’t leave you much room for chocolate, does it?

  • It contributes at least 4g of fibre. Again, if you’re eating 2000 calories, you should aim for about 28g of fibre. If you’re not getting at least 4g from your breakfast cereal, you’re going to have a tough time getting there! More would be better, but I wouldn’t settle for less than 4g. That’s the number Health Canada uses to allow products to be labeled “High Fibre.”
  • No more than 140mg of sodium. Products with 140 mg sodium or less can have a “low in sodium” label in Canada, so that seemed like a good number to aim for. For context, Hypertension Canada recommends no more than 2000mg a day.

Other tips for the cereal-loving among us

If you enjoy a good bowl of cereal, go for it! If you want to make it a heart-healthier breakfast, a few suggestions:

  • Aim for 3/4-1 cup, unless you’re a marathon runner, an active teenage boy, or are for some other reason in need of a lot of extra food energyDSC_0112 (1). If you’re more hungry than that…
  • Add fruit and nuts or seeds. Sprinkle on a handful of blueberries for antioxidants, vitamins, and extra fibre, or slice in a banana. Sprinkle generously with slivered almonds, hemp hearts, or chia seeds for protein, healthy fats, and even more fibre.
  • Enjoy with milk or another protein-rich alternative. I usually suggest cow’s milk or soy beverage because they offer a decent amount of protein, but oat milk is okay too, with about half as much. Almond has next to none.

Which hits the sweet spot?

Which of the “Sweet Spot Sixteen” (17) cereals have you tried? What did you think? Personally I enjoy the Nature’s Path Flax Plus and Heritage Flakes, but haven’t tried many of the others. Join the conversation on Facebook to see what others think.

(This post was not sponsored. Nothing I write is sponsored.)