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Cold Cereal: Healthy or Unhealthy?

Part One

By Gary F. Zeolla

I ate cold cereal for breakfast most every day when I was growing up. By the time I graduated from high school in 1979, I was always eating cold cereal for breakfast. I just preferred it to other breakfast foods, for reasons I’ll discuss later.

At that time I was eating commercial cold cereals, meaning cereals bought at a standard grocery store. But I only ate low-sugar, whole-grain cereals. My favorites were Life and Quaker Oat Squares. But I made a change in the mid-1990s. I switched from commercial cereals to natural cereals, buying them at a health food store. Again, I’ll discuss the reasons later. But now, my favorite cereal is Barbara’s Morning Oat Crunch.

But then in 2007 I was diagnosed with reactive hypoglycemia. Follow the link for details, but as a result I switched from eating cold cereal to eating oatmeal every morning. But then in the spring of 2014, I switched from drinking a pre-workout drink to eating a bowl of cold cereal before workouts. For details see, Regaining Muscular Bodyweight and Strength.

With that background, the reader can see I am a real fan of cold cereal. But is cold cereal a healthy or an unhealthy food? This is actually a complex question, with some very strong opinions on both sides. But in this two-part article I will try to explain the issues involved as clearly as possible, without the strong diatribes you’ll see elsewhere.

This is an important subject to look at in detail in light of the following, “With a household penetration rate in excess of 90 percent, breakfast cereals generated $10.2 billion in total U.S. sales for 2011” (Cereals: Reaching Beyond Breakfast).

 

Grains Issues

 

In my book God-given Foods Eating Plan I discuss the immense difference between whole grains versus refined grains. The former are very healthy, while the latter not so much. Now some will dispute this and will claim all grains, whether whole or refined, are unhealthy. These are mostly those who advocate low-carb or Paleolithic diets. However, in the chapter on “Whole Grains” in my book I cite numerous scientific studies showing the many health benefits of whole grain consumption, while those who say otherwise rarely cite any scientific studies showing whole grains are unhealthy.

As such, if a cold cereal is made with whole grains, then that would be an argument in favor of it being healthy, while if it is made with refined grains, then it would not be healthy. Reading the food label is all it takes to know if a particular cereal is made from whole grains or not. Unrefined oats, wheat, or corn will be called “whole” while unrefined rice will be listed as brown rice. If it says just oats, wheat, rice, or degerminated corn, then those are refined.

Or look at the number of grams of fiber per serving. If it is 0-2 grams, then the cereal probably contains all or mostly refined grains. If it is three or more grams, then it probably contains all or mostly whole grains.

Second to this is the type of grain used. I discuss in my book that oats are probably the most nutritious grain, so cereals with primary this grain would probably be the healthiest. All three of the aforementioned cereals have “whole grain oats” as their first ingredient. Whole wheat would be the next most nutritious, followed by whole corn, then brown rice.

Third, gluten-free diets are all the rage of late. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. As far as I know, no cold cereal contains barley or rye, but most cold cereals contain wheat. So a short discussion of this subject would be helpful in this article, with the focus on wheat.

“Celiac disease, also known as gluten intolerance, is a genetic disorder that affects at least 1 in 133 Americans” (Celiac.com). The 1 in 133 number is less than 1% of the US population.

However, some try to make a distinction between celiac disease and gluten intolerance (or sensitivity), claiming the latter is more prevalent. But “the data suggest that almost two-thirds of people who think they are gluten-intolerant really aren’t” (Why Do So Many People Think They Need Gluten-Free Foods?). And in a double-blind study, “Gluten wasn't the culprit; the cause was likely psychological. Participants expected the diets to make them sick, and so they did” (Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity May Not Exist).

Related to this would be a wheat allergy. But, “… it’s estimated that approximately 0.4 percent of children and 0.5 percent of adults are allergic to wheat” (Wheat Allergy). So just like true celiac disease or gluten intolerance, a true wheat allergy is very rare.

Gluten is a protein in wheat (all kinds, including spelt, Kamut® khorasan, einkorn and farro/emmer), barley, rye and triticale (a rye/wheat hybrid) that is hard for some people to digest.

This group includes the estimated 1-2% of the population with celiac disease – an autoimmune form of gluten intolerance – who must eat a gluten-free diet for life. Other people may not have celiac disease, but may be allergic to wheat (about 0.2-0.4% of people) or may have what's termed non-celiac gluten sensitivity (a group some experts estimate at from 1% to 6% of the population) -- though new research shows NCGS may not actually be the issue it was once thought to be.

There's no reason for the rest of us to go gluten-free, no matter what fear-mongering books like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain may say (Gluten Free Whole Grains).

Adding together the most liberal numbers, at most 8.5% of the US population suffers from conditions that would require them to avoid wheat.  Or looking at it the other way, for at least 91.5% of Americans there would be no benefit from eliminating wheat from their diets.

That said, if you have been diagnosed by a doctor with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or a wheat allergy, then yes, you absolutely must eliminate wheat from your diet. And that will leave you with few choices when it comes to cold cereals. A while back I checked a local grocery store to see what cereals were wheat-free, and out of the long aisle of cereals, I only found four: Corn Chex, Rice Chex, Corn Flakes, and Rice Krispies. Even oat-based cereals, like Life, Oat Squares, and original Cheerios, all contain wheat.

But for the vast majority of the American population who do not suffer from these conditions there is no reason to be so restrictive in your food or cereal selections. So you can avail yourself of the multitude of cereals containing whole oats and whole wheat, which are more nutritious than wheat-free, corn-based and rice-based cereals.

I especially get frustrated when I hear well-meaning parents say they are going to put their children on a wheat-free diet. Unless a child has been diagnosed with one of the above conditions, there is no reason to impose on them such a restrictive diet, including depriving them of cold cereal, something most children love. Doing so could backfire; causing the children to rebel when they get older and to reject all of the dietary advice their parents gave to them and to become “junk food junkies” or worse to develop eating disorders.

Finally on grains, mention has been made of oats, wheat, corn, and rice since those are the grains used in almost all commercial cereals and most natural cereals. But some natural cereals contain lesser known grains, such as spelt, kamut, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, and quinoa (pronounced “keen-WAH”). As far as I know, these grains are generally used in their unrefined forms in natural cereals, so they provide a healthy variety to one’s cereal selection.

For the small percentage of the population with a wheat-related problem, spelt and kamut are kinds of wheat, so they would need to be avoided. The rest of these grains are unrelated to wheat and should not be problematic.

 

Sugar Content

 

Refined sugar is not healthy as it has no nutritional value other than carbohydrates. But the first ingredient in many cold cereals is sugar, so that is a potential problem. But for many other cereals, it is lower in the ingredients list. And if you look at the Nutrition Facts, you will see a wide range in the number of grams of sugar between cereals. But you need to be careful in comparing food labels, as different cereals have different serving sizes. And even for ones with the same serving size, the number of calories per serving can vary widely.

For instance, sugar is the first ingredient in Fruit Loops, with a blend of whole and degerminated corn being the second. It has 12 grams of sugar per serving. A serving is one cup and contains 110 calories. At 4 calories per gram, that means 44% of the calories are from sugar.

In Quaker Oat Squares, brown sugar is the third ingredient and sugar the fourth. It has 9 grams of sugar per one cup serving, so that doesn’t sound like much of a difference. However, the one serving of Oat Squares contains 210 calories, so only 17% of calories are from sugar. And with the first two ingredients being whole grain oats and whole wheat flour, it would be the much healthier choice. But given the caloric density, the amount consumed needs to be watched.

A more dramatic example would be the kid favorite Cheerios. Sugar is the third ingredient, with whole grain oats being the first. It has just one gram of sugar per 100 calorie, 1 cup serving. So that means only 4% of the calories are from sugar, far less than for Fruit Loops. So the healthier choice should be obvious.

Fruit can be used to add sweetness to cereal. Fruit is extremely healthy, as I demonstrate in the chapter on “Fruit” in my Eating Plan book. So eating low-sugar cereals with fruit is much healthier than consuming highly sweetened cereals.

Along these lines, parents should take note of the following:

A study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University showed that children who ate low-sugar cereals were more inclined to put fruit on their cereal (when readily available) than children who consumed high-sugar cereals. Kids in the study also ate less if their cereal of choice was low-sugar. Regardless of sugar content, a relatively equal amount of kids reported “liking” or “loving” the cereal they chose (December 12, 2010, Breakfast Research & Statistics).

 

Artificial Ingredients

 

The next issue to consider is the presence of artificial ingredients. Most commercial cereals contain artificial colorings and preservatives. There is much debate on such ingredients, with some claiming they are not problematic, but others saying they can cause a host of health problems, such as ADHD in children (see Food Dye and ADHD).

Personally, I have no choice but to avoid them as I am sensitive to such ingredients, meaning they can cause me to have an allergic reaction. But even without that problem, I would still avoid them as they are not natural and thus would not fit into my “God-given Foods Eating Plan” as discussed in my book.

That said, all of the commercial cereals mentioned so far contain artificial colorings and/ or preservatives. The Life and Oat Squares contain yellow 5, yellow 6, and BHT (a preservative), while the Fruit Loops contain red 40, blue 2, yellow 6, blue 1, and BHT.

BHT stands for butylated hydroxytoluene. “BHT is used in the manufacture of tires, some plastics and diesel fuel.” In large amounts it is toxic, but it is supposed to be safe at the levels used in foods (see BHT In My Cereal? versus BHT: The Secret in Your Cereal).

Cheerios does not contain artificial colorings, but it does contain trisodium phosphate (Na3PO4), a chemical approved as a food additive and used as an antioxidant agent (i.e., a preservative), but it is also used as a cleaning agent, lubricant, stain remover, and degreaser (Wikipedia). In large amounts it is a poison (Trisodium phosphate poisoning), but, like BHT, it is supposed to be safe at the levels used in foods. I don’t want to condemn the otherwise healthy Cheerios on this point alone, but it just doesn’t sound appetizing (see In R Food).

However, natural cereals do not contain any such ingredients, and that is one reason I now only consume natural cereals, but it was not the reason I initially switched to them. That is an even more complex issue.

 

Fortification

 

Most commercial cereals are fortified with at least 25% of the Daily Value (DV) for at least a dozen vitamins and minerals and with at least 45% of the DV for iron. And this fortification is touted as a plus by cereal manufacturers. And there is no doubt it can be.

I worked with the Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) governmental food assistance program back in the mid-80s. It is because of the WIC program that most commercial cereals have 45% of the DV for iron rather than just 25%, as to qualify to be purchased with WIC vouchers, a cereal must have that amount of iron.

Back in the 80s, only a few cereals had the 45% amount. That led to the rather strange situation of Cheerios, a low-sugar, whole-grain cereal that kids love, not being allowed since it “only” had 25% of the DV, while some high-sugar, refined-grain cereals with 45% were allowed. I thought back then it would make more sense to give the kids the healthier Cheerios and an iron pill, rather than a sugar-loaded, refined-grain cereal with a bit more added iron. But today that is a non-issue as almost all commercial cereals have that amount of iron so as to qualify to be on the government bandwagon.

That said, at the WIC office we would test the iron blood levels of children applying for the program, as a low iron level was a qualifying factor. The kids hated the test as it required pricking their finger, and I had to deal with some very misbehaving children as a result. But it was worth the hassles of attaining the blood as many of the children’s blood levels were low in iron. But then after a while on the program the children’s iron levels would regularly come up into the normal range. So the fortification of cereals was effective, despite my misgivings. This is important as some claim the “artificial” nutrients used for fortification are not well assimilated. But such claims simply are not true, as this consistent improvement in iron levels proves.

But this seemingly good thing can actually be a potential problem. I heard on the news in June of 2014 about a study that found the fortification of cold cereals could cause children to be overdosed on vitamin A, niacin, and zinc (see Does cereal have too many vitamins for kids?). But the reason for this is a little complicated, so bear with me as I try to explain it.

First, the difference between the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) and the DV needs to be understood. The RDAs are actually several sets of values of the recommended levels of intake for a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. There are different values for males and females and for different age categories. There are also separate values for pregnant and breast-feeding women. They are revised every five years by the Food and Nutrition Board.

The DVs are the values seen on food and supplement labels. They were based on the highest level of recommended nutrients in the RDAs, not including the levels for pregnant and breast-feeding woman. However, they have not been updated since 1968, so they are very out of date. Some RDAs have been raised since then, while others have been lowered.

The reason they have not been updated is due to lobbying by food and supplements companies to keep the DVs from being changed, as doing so would cost the companies lots of money. They would have to change the amounts of nutrients they add to foods or put in supplements and/ or change all of their labels. As a result, we, the consumers, are stuck with outdated nutritional recommendations on labels.

Second, do not confuse toxicity levels of nutrients with the Upper Tolerable Limit (UTL). Toxicity on the one hand refers to the amount of a nutrient that needs to be ingested in one sitting or in a short period of time to experience an acute severe reaction. That is a very large amount, like a young child swallowing a whole bottle of vitamins.

The UTL on the other hand is the level of the nutrient a person can consume over a long period of time without negative side effects. A chronic intake above this level can cause side effects, be they minor or severe, and that chronic ingestion level is far lower than the acute toxicity level.

With that background, the RDA for vitamin A is now 3,000 I.Us for adults and only 1,300 I.U.s for children aged 4-8. The UTL is 10,000 I.U.s for adults and only 3,000 I.U.s for 4-8 year olds (Recommended Daily Intakes and Upper Limits for Nutrients).

Now this is where the difference between the RDA and DV is important. The DV is 5,000 I.U.s, the outdated RDA for adults (Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide). So a cereal with 25% of the DV would have 1250 I.U.s, almost a child’s full RDA and almost half of their UTL. If a child eats two servings, they would be consuming almost double their RDA and almost their full UTL. Add in vitamin A from other foods throughout the day, and they are easily over their UTL. Add in a basic multiple vitamin, and the kid is way over.

The primary risks of too much vitamin A (either acute or chronic excess) are birth defects, liver abnormalities, central nervous system disorders, and lower bone mineral density that might increase osteoporosis risk. Since the American diet contains many fortified foods, the relationship between vitamin A and decreased bone density has become a greater concern.

Both human and animal studies show that a higher vitamin A intake interferes with bone metabolism. Specifically, excess vitamin A suppresses osteoblast (bone-building) activity, stimulates osteoclast (bone breakdown) formation, and interferes with vitamin D’s role in calcium absorption and regulation (Vitamin A: Are You Getting Too Much?).

The above quote is obviously about adults, but if a child’s central nervous system, liver, or bones do not develop properly, that could cause serious long-term consequences. That is the concern expressed in the study.

Note, only preformed vitamin A is the concern here, which is found in animal foods and most fortified foods and supplements. The vitamin A precursor beta carotene, found in plant foods and some supplements, is not a concern.

As for myself, the reason I switched from commercial cereals to natural cereals was because of the aforementioned fortification with iron. It was causing me gastrointestinal (GI) problems. The reason for this is again a little complicated.

The RDA for iron for adult men like myself is 8 mg and the UTL 45 mg, while the DV is 18 mg, the RDA for women of child-bearing age. So a cereal with 45% of the DV would have 8.1 mg, my entire RDA. Moreover, some cereals, such as my former favorite Quaker Oat Squares, have 90%, or 16.2 mg. I can only assume they doubled the serving size but didn’t alter the amount of iron added.

Moreover, I, as with most people, generally ate more than one serving, probably about 1-1/2, so that would have given me over 20 mg. Add in the close to 20 mg I get in my diet, and you can be see I was consuming near the UTL.

In addition, one thing I have always found strange about nutrient recommendations is they do not take into account body size. I am only 5’1” and at that time only weighed 112 pounds. That is far less than the average adult male the 45 mg UTL is for. So my UTL is probably much lower, hence my 40mg+ intake easily put me over the limit for someone my size, hence my GI problems.

But when I switched to natural, un-fortified cereals, the problem cleared up. Along with at health food stores, such cereals are available from online stores like iHerb. Use coupon code HOP815 to get $5.00 off your first order.

This article is concluded at Cold Cereal: Healthy or Unhealthy? - Part Two.

Cold Cereal: Healthy or Unhealthy? Copyright © 2014 by Gary F. Zeolla.

Disclaimers: The material presented in this article is intended for educational purposes only. The author is not offering medical or legal advice. Accuracy of information is attempted but not guaranteed. Before undertaking any diet, exercise, or health improvement program, one should consult your doctor. The author is in no way responsible or liable for any bodily harm, physical, mental, or emotional, that results from following any of the advice in this article.

The above article was posted on this site July 26, 2014.
It originally appeared in the free email newsletter FitTips for One and All.

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