As a qualified nutritionist, I’m often asked about quick and easy breakfast options, with one of the most common questions being about store-bought cereals. While homemade is always best, we’re also realistic: there will be times when you need something quick and picking up a box of cereal from the supermarket is an easy solution.
The problem with store-bought cereals is that, unfortunately, the vast majority are heavily refined and full of added sugar which is not the sort of fuel that will power you through your day. For this reason, I always recommend muesli as the healthiest go-to option, but it’s even better if you can prepare a quick, homemade muesli because it really is the healthiest option overall.
With that said, let’s move onto my review of the healthiest (and unhealthiest) cereals you can buy in Australian supermarkets in 2019.
What factors define if a cereal is healthy?
Here is what I asses when rating how healthy a store-bought cereal is here is, listed in order of importance:
- The type and quality of ingredients used
- The amount of sugar per 100g
- The fibre content per 100g
- The number of calories in a standard serving
You’ll notice the calories of a standard serving of cereal isn’t in our top 3. This is because, when it comes to health, we’re much more concerned with the quality of the calories you’re eating. There are a number of reasons for this ‘quality first’ approach, which I’ll cover in another article soon.
What is a ‘quality’ cereal ingredient?
We want to ensure your cereal consists of quality, ‘real food’ ingredients. We classify a quality ingredient to be any food that is used in its natural form, without manipulation.
Examples of quality ingredients you might find in a healthy cereal:
- Whole grains: rolled oats, barley, spelt, quinoa, puffed rice, etc.
- Nuts: including almonds, walnuts, brazil nuts, hazelnuts, macadamias, etc.
- Seeds: such as sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, linseed, etc.
How do you know if your cereal contains quality ingredients?
Our basic rule of thumb here is, if you want to buy a healthy cereal with quality ingredients, have a look at the ingredient list. If you see a number or a word that looks like a science experiment, chances are it isn’t natural and it doesn’t belong in our food.
If you read the ingredients list on the side of your breakfast cereal box, do you see the mention of ‘whole grains’, ‘nuts’ or ‘seeds’? That’s usually a good sign but, be warned, this doesn’t mean your cereal can be classed as healthy just yet.
Keep on reading to learn the full story of what makes a healthy cereal; how to understand a cereal’s nutritional panel, plus we discuss the problem with vegetable oil and… how to find hidden sugars in your cereal!
Why we don’t recommend foods with artificial ingredients, preservatives or ‘natural flavours’.
We focus on wholefoods, as close to their natural form as possible. So, coming back to our ‘real food’ philosophy, any ingredient that is synthetic, made or manipulated in a lab simply don’t meet our ‘real food’ standard. Likewise, we don’t recommend natural flavours for regular consumption as, although they have been derived from natural sources, it may have gone through a number of unknown manipulations before it reaches your food. Reference: FDA
What is the maximum amount of sugar in a cereal before it becomes unhealthy?
We believe that up to 8% is a reasonable amount of sugar for a product to contain. This also keeps it within the range that is commonly considered a ‘low sugar’ food.
Buy cereals that have no more than 8g of sugar per 100g.
What are ‘free sugars’? And why should we worry?
Alas, it doesn’t mean they’re free from calories. Free sugars refer to sugars that have been added to a food product by the manufacturer and is not naturally occurring within the food itself. Unfortunately so many packaged foods have free sugars added to them in order to make them more palatable, which is another reason why we say it’s best to eat natural, real food and avoid packaged, labelled foods.
World Health Organisation’s Recommendation on ‘free sugars’
The World Health Organisation recommends keeping our daily intake of free sugars below 5-10% of our total energy intake.
How to read the ingredients list on your box of cereal
A helpful thing to know is that food labels always show ingredients in an ordered list, from highest percentage in the cereal to the lowest. So, if you see sugar as one of the first few items mentioned, drop that box and run!
One way to find a healthy, low-sugar cereal is to avoid any product with added sugar. Of course, sometimes the biggest challenge is recognizing sugar for what it is. Sugar can be sneaky, and can hide in your ingredients list under many different names.
Sugar sneaks into your cereal under different names. For example, the following ingredients are all commonly found in cereals, and they are ALL sugar:
- Golden syrup
- Glucose syrup
- Maple syrup
- Rice malt syrup
- Date syrup
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Brown sugar
- Raw sugar
- Agave syrup
- Coconut nectar syrup
- … And the list goes on!
This is another reason why it is important to have a look at the ingredients list of a product and, if nothing else, at least review the nutrition label to see the overall sugar content.
An example of this is the following ingredient list, taken from the side of a Kellogg’s Sustain cereal box. Not only is there ‘sugar’ in the list below, but also ‘invert syrup’ and ‘barley malt extract’, both of which are hidden sugars that we need to be mindful of.
How to read the nutrition panel and check if sugar is hiding in your cereal
- Look at the cereal’s nutrition panel
- Directly underneath ‘carbohydrates’, you’ll find ‘sugars’.
- Look across at the amount of sugar per 100g
- The number you’ll see tells you what percentage of the cereal is pure sugar.
Using the same example of Kellogg’s Sustain, below is an example of a nutrition panel and where you can find the sugar content:
How much fibre should be in my daily cereal?
Given most Australians don’t eat enough fibre, we should aim to incorporate higher fibre foods into all of our meals, and breakfast is no exception.
Fibre is an essential part of a healthy diet, it is vital for our digestive health and can help to regulate our weight. Unfortunately, most people aren’t getting anywhere near a healthy level of daily fibre, with a recent study reporting only 42.3% of children and 28.2% of adults achieved an adequate intake of fibre in Australia.NCBI
When looking for a cereal with healthy fibre content, look for around 10g of fibre per 100g of product.
How many calories should a healthy cereal have?
We don’t advocate counting calories as a general practice, but they can be useful to consider when it comes to weight loss. When looking at calories, it is important to factor in the ingredients that the calories come from, and this links back to our earlier criteria of only eating quality ingredients.
On average, a recommended breakfast on our 28 program is around 400 calories. This includes the cereal (usually a tasty, homemade serve of muesli), along with any of the ingredients that you plan to serve it up with, such as milk or fruit or additional nuts
You want a cereal that is around 200-300 calories per serve, depending on what you’ll be serving it up with of course.
What is the healthiest cereal in Australian Supermarkets?
The truth is, the healthiest cereals are not ones you’ll find in a supermarket, they’re the ones you make at home. However, if we are going to pick the one closest to what we recommend, this is what it would be:
Whole Grain Oats, Nuts (Almonds 9%), Pecans 1%), Golden Syrup, Seeds (Sunflower Seeds, Pepitas 3%, Sesame Seeds), Sunflower Oil, Oat Flour, Cinnamon.
Serving size: 45g
Sugar per 100g: 8g
Fibre per 100g: 9.6g
Calories per 100g: 451 kcal
THE NUTRITIONIST’S VIEW: Overall, most of the ingredients are good and meet our quality ingredient criteria, however golden syrup and sunflower oil are ingredients we don’t recommend as something you consume regularly. With just 8% sugar, it just passes the sugar test and also has a decent fibre content. In terms of calories, it’s 203 kcal per serve, which is the perfect amount to then serve with natural Greek yoghurt and fresh berries of your choice.
What are some other good cereal choices if you’re in a rush?
Any cereals that meet (or come close to meeting) our recommended criteria of a healthy cereal are fine for when you don’t have the time to make up your own batch. This store-bought cereal came in as a very close second best for the healthiest cereal award:
Whole Grain Oat Flakes (55%), Barley Flakes (19%), Chicory Root Fibre (11%), Nuts (7%) (Sliced & Whole Almonds (5%), Chopped Roasted Hazelnuts (2%)), Sunflower Oil, Seeds (1%) (Pumpkin Seeds, Sunflower Seeds), Desiccated Coconut, Natural Flavouring.
Serving size: 45g
Sugar per 100g: 2.9g
Fibre per 100g: 7.9
Calories per 100g: 448 kcal
THE NUTRITIONIST’S VIEW: Here, the sunflower oil and natural flavouring are not ingredients that we normally recommend but it does have very low sugar levels and the fibre content is close to the recommended amounts. Overall this product and similar ones, are better than many of the other cereals in Australia supermarkets. [The term natural flavour does require that the flavour be derived from real food, however the keyword here is ‘derived’. As we focus on whole foods, as close to their natural form as possible, we don’t recommend natural flavours for regular consumption. Reference: FDA
Why we don’t recommend vegetable oil
Vegetable oils are polyunsaturated fats and oils, like sunflower oil and canola oil, which are high in omega-6.
The reason why we recommend avoiding vegetable oil is that an average western diet typically provides us with too much omega-6 in proportion to the amount of omega-3 we consume.
For optimal health, the recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is 1:1.
The problem with consuming omegas in an incorrect ratio, especially if we consume too much omega-6, is that it can contribute to inflammation and weight gain.NCBI
What are omega-6 & omega-3s?
Both omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fatty acids that our bodies need, but cannot make. This means we must obtain both of them through our diet.
The healthiest cereal you can buy NOT stocked in major supermarkets
For the purpose of this article, we looked at what is available in Australian supermarkets. However, it’s important for you to know there are more options out there.
Often you can find a wider range of healthy options online or in health food stores. Given that, we felt it important to at least mention one healthy cereal you can buy that are NOT stocked by the main Australian supermarkets.
One of the best breakfast cereals available is ‘The Muesli’. Sadly, this one has not made it to the supermarket shelves, but it is worth buying online or from health food shops that stock them.
Rolled Oats, Almonds, Cashews, Walnuts, Hazelnuts, Brazil Nuts, Sunflower Seeds, Sesame Seeds, Linseed, Pumpkin Seeds, Coconut.
Serving size: 50g
Sugar per 100g: 1.6g
Fibre per 100g: 9.3
Calories per 100g: 525 kcal
THE NUTRITIONIST’S VIEW: Taking more of a look at this product, it meets all of the main criteria by having good quality ingredients, low sugar and high fibre.
What is an unhealthy breakfast cereal?
Unhealthy cereals will have:
- high sugar
- low fibre
- an excessive number of calories per serve
How much sugar is just too much for a cereal?
Anything over 10g of sugar per 100g is not going to give you a great start to the day, particularly if you’ll be serving it with foods that already have naturally occurring sugars.
Sugary cereals may satisfy our sweet tooth but it won’t leave us full and satisfied until our next meal. Even worse, high sugar cereals cause a spike in our blood sugar and, although they act as fast energy, the subsequent blood sugar drop isn’t pleasant, and it’s likely to send us hunting for more energy-rich treats which will create an unhealthy cycle that can be hard to break.
The unhealthiest cereals in Australia (2019)
If you asked a friend to name five popular cereals, most of the products would likely be something a nutritionist would struggle to call an acceptable breakfast food. Almost all of the popular cereals are heavily processed and full of refined ingredients, added sugar and unnatural preservatives.
It’s a sad state of affairs that most of the foods being marketed to Australians are simply not good for us to consume on a daily basis. This includes products from popular cereal brands like Uncle Toby’s, Kelloggs and Sanitarium.
The 3 worst cereal products in Australian Supermarkets
Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Cornflakes
Kellogg’s Coco Pops
Kellogg’s Fruit Loops
Cereals people think are healthy… but aren’t!
‘Just Right’ from Kelloggs is a perfect example of an unhealthy cereal that people regularly mistake for being good for you. If you take a look at the label, you’ll soon see why.
Whole Grains (64%)(Wheat, Oats), Fruit (Sultanas, Apricot Piece [5%] [Concentrated Apricot Puree, Concentrated Apple Puree, Invert Sugar, Humectant (Glycerol), Sugar, Wheat Fibre, Gelling Agent (Pectin), Acidity Regulator (296), Natural Flavour, Colours (Tumeric, Paprika)]), Sugar, Puffed Triticale, Wheat Flour, Barley Malt Extract, Salt, Natural Flavour, Minerals (Iron), Vitamins (Niacin, Riboflavin, Folate, Thiamin).
Serving size: 40g
Sugar per 100g: 22.9
Fibre per 100g: 10.2
Calories per 100g: 363 kcal
THE NUTRITIONIST’S VIEW: Looking at the above information, it’s clear that there are numerous ingredients that do not meet the guidelines. Additionally, it’s high in sugar, being almost 23% sugar. The fibre content is high, however, this doesn’t negate the fact Just Right is full of unhealthy ingredients and contains far too much sugar.
Ready to become a healthier, fitter you?
My online fitness, nutrition and mindset program costs less than $2 day, with no ongoing contracts. To join thousands of other 28er’s, just like you, register today, and let’s get started on the road to a healthier you!
What other kinds of cereals should you avoid?
If a cereal doesn’t pass our top 3 criteria of quality ingredients, low sugar and high fibre, we recommend that you go for something else.
Muesli is generally a healthy choice, but not always.
Let’s take a look at another cereal you can find in Australian supermarkets which, because it is a muesli, is often perceived as a healthy option.
Morning Sun Natural 97% Fat Free Muesli 650g
Wholegrain Wheat (39%), Rolled Barley (36%), (Dried Fruits [Sultanas (8%), Currants (4%), Apricot (2%), Paw Paw Pieces (Paw Paw (0.7%), Sugar), Apple (1%), (Preservative ( 220 ), ( 223 )*)], Wheat Bran, Sugar, Malt Extract ( Barley ), Salt, Emulsifier (471). Vitamins and Minerals Vitamins(E, B1, Niacin, Folic Acid, B6, B2), Minerals (Iron and Zinc).
Serving size: 45g
Sugar per 100g: 14.1
Fibre per 100g: 10.3
Calories per 100g: 339
THE NUTRITIONIST’S VIEW: There are preservatives and emulsifiers in this cereal which we don’t recommend so sadly it doesn’t meet our ‘just eat real food’ philosophy. It also has added sugar which means it has a higher sugar content than we’d like. The fibre is high, so that is a positive, however this isn’t enough to overcome all the other negative factors, so we can’t consider it a “healthy cereal”. It’s better than Just Right, and it’s a lot better than something like Fruit Loops, but still, there are a lot of healthier alternatives out there so we’d recommend you give Morning Sun’s Natural 97% Fat Free Muesli a miss.
What else should you consider when choosing a healthy cereal?
Some of our tips when shopping for a healthy muesli or cereal include:
- Choose fruit free options
You can add your own fresh fruit when you’re serving up your breakfast.
- Look at the ingredients list
Check to see if the ingredients are natural and make sure there are no added sugars, preservatives, artificial flavours, etc.
- Plain is best
Avoid gourmet or fancy flavours, chances are that they need added flavours and sweeteners to get this taste.
- Don’t fall for marketing claims
Disregard all claims of ‘Low fat’, ‘No added sugar’, ‘Packed full of superfoods’, and look for the facts. The truth will always be found in the ingredients list and nutrition panel.
Our time & money hack to get the healthiest cereal in Australia
Homemade muesli! One of our favourite muesli time (and money) saving ‘hacks’ is buying a large bag of rolled oats and a bag of mixed nuts and simply… combining them! Yes, it can be that easy.
Sure, once a month you’ll have to buy your ingredients and take a few minutes to mix your ingredients in an airtight container but, every morning after that, there isn’t a faster or healthier cereal we can think of!
To serve your healthy muesli for breakfast, just add some fresh milk or natural Greek yoghurt and scatter some of your favourite seasonal fruits and, voila, you’re ready to eat the healthiest muesli you can find!
HOW TO SAVE EVEN MORE MONEY: You’ll save the most money by buying your rolled oats and mixed nuts in bulk, as your muesli will store in the cupboard in an airtight container for up to a month.
Remember, healthy eating is often just about going back to basics and at 28 we aim to make this as achievable as possible through little tricks, just like this. In the end, healthy cereals, or food of any kind, comes down to choosing good quality ingredients. And if you only remember one thing today, remember this: just eat real food.