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Healthy cereal: Does it exist?Healthy cereal: Does it exist?

What’s Cooking in Illinois: When searching for a nutritious breakfast cereal, read the labels and be mindful — or make your own.

Charlyn Fargo Ware

October 25, 2023

4 Min Read
 A close-up of granola made up of seeds, nuts and oats
CRUNCH: We can celebrate the farmers who raise the wheat, rice, oats and corn that go into many cereals and granolas. Charlyn Fargo Ware

Can the words “healthy” and “cereal” go together? It can be daunting to navigate the cereal aisles.

Like anything else, it takes reading the labels and being mindful. Or perhaps making your own.

We all know that breakfast is indeed an important meal of the day. And ready-to-eat cereals have been dubbed by some as the king of the breakfast table. Nine out of 10 Americans say they eat cereal for breakfast, according to Mintel Group, a market research firm. Many of us eat them for a snack food as well.

A recent study found that children who consume cereal had 29% higher total dairy intake, 61% higher whole grain intake and a higher diet quality overall than children who didn’t eat cereal. One of the reasons is cereal is an important source of nutrients in the American diet. Mintel predicts that the cereal market will grow by 18% in the next five years, reaching $160 billion by 2028.

Quick, convenient breakfast cereals can be as simple as oatmeal or as complex as cereals baked into protein bars. But they vary significantly in most nutrients — calories, protein, sugar, fats and fibers — which is why it’s important to read labels. For bars and cereals, I typically go by the 10-5-5 rule. Look for 10 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber and less than 5 grams of added sugars.

Higher-fiber cereals:

  • Kellogg’s All-Bran

  • Kellogg’s Cracklin’ Oat Bran

  • Post Grape-Nuts

  • Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats Bite Size

  • Cascadian Farm Organic Multi-Grain Squares

Higher-protein cereals:

  • Post Premier Protein Chocolate Almond

  • Kashi GO Peanut Butter Crunch

Higher-protein granola and muesli:

  • Bear Naked Granola Protein Honey Almond

  • Quaker Protein Granola Oats, Chocolate and Almonds

  • Quaker Simply Granola Oats, Honey, Raisins and Almonds

Where we can go wrong is choosing the higher-calorie, higher-sugar cereals on a daily basis. We often get fooled by a label that includes “natural,” “organic” or “fruit” in the title. They give the impression that a cereal is healthier than it really is. Some granolas, for example, can be high in added sugars and fat. On the other hand, cereals that add chia, flax, pumpkin, sunflower, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, pecans, berries and chopped apple can boost the nutritional value.

I often recommend to my patients to mix cereals – mix a favorite with a higher-fiber, higher-protein cereal. And I encourage them to add skim milk rather than higher-fat, higher-calorie whole milk.

If you’re looking for an alternative to the boxes, consider making your own. In a Culinary Medicine elective that we offer at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine for fourth-year medical students, we make our own granola. We often serve it with plain or vanilla-flavored low-fat Greek yogurt for a quick, healthy breakfast. You can also make granola as a great holiday gift for friends and family.

Here are two of our favorite recipes:

Pumpkin Harvest Granola

2½ cups old fashioned oats
¾ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
⅓ cup packed brown sugar
⅓ cup pumpkin puree
¼ cup applesauce
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
⅓ cup chopped pecans
⅓ cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, combine the oats, pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar, pumpkin puree, applesauce, maple syrup and vanilla extract. Whisk until smooth. Add the wet mixture to the oat mixture and stir until the ingredients are evenly distributed.

Pour the granola mix onto the prepared baking sheet and spread into an even layer. Bake granola for 10 minutes; then mix in the pecans and pepitas. Bake for another 10 minutes (total time 20 minutes). Set aside to let granola cool and package.

Cranberry Orange Pecan Granola

1 large orange, zested
1 tablespoon sugar
2 cups old-fashioned oats
¾ cup chopped pecans
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup pure maple syrup
½ cup reduced-sugar dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a small bowl, combine the orange zest and sugar. Use your (clean) fingers to rub the zest into the sugar until it’s bright orange and fragrant. In a large bowl, combine the oats, pecans, salt, cinnamon and orange sugar; then stir to mix. Add the oil and maple syrup, and mix well until evenly distributed.

Pour the granola mix onto the prepared baking sheet and spread into an even layer. Bake granola for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring halfway, until the granola turns a light golden color. Set aside to let the granola cool. Once cooled, stir in the dried cranberries and package.

About the Author(s)

Charlyn Fargo Ware

Charlyn Fargo Ware is a registered dietitian with Southern Illinois University Medical School in Springfield, Ill. Email recipe ideas to her at [email protected].

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