On choosing breakfast cereals carefully

Remember that old adage, eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and so on?
There is plenty of scientific data out there to support that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

For many people scrambling to get to work or school on time each morning, a bowl of cereal with milk makes for a quick, convenient and filling start to the day. But is it always as nourishing as it ought to be?

There is of course a dazzling array of choices in the cereal aisles of food stores and supermarkets.

But a closer glance at what is on offer would reveal that instead of a product that in an ideal world would be nutrient rich and based on complex carbohydrates, what is on offer is often an unhealthier option, with excessive amounts of added sugar, hydrogenated oils and too-highly-processed grains.

The added sugar usually appears on the list of ingredients of most cereals in more than one avtaar – sugar, dextrose, fructose, corn syrup and maple syrup, among others. The choice of your breakfast cereal becomes significant when you consider that the amount of sugar permissible each day on a 2000 calorie diet (make that around 1500 for children) is a mere 40 g and many popular brands fulfill 25-50% of that amount. So eat breakfast like a king, yes, but like a wise one, not a hedonistic one.

Hydrogenated oils too are bad news when you consider that they are linked to coronary heart disease, diabetes and other chronic health conditions. So why do manufacturers use them, instead of healthy polyunsaturated fats, in the processing of their products? Because hydrogenated oils increase the shelf life of these products and add to their taste and texture.

The third big source of trouble comes from the cereal or grain itself. Most commercially available cereal-based products use refined flours, since the oils present in the whole grain can cause rancidity, which would complicate processing, storage and transport.

But the milling that cereals undergo during refining, strips them of the bran and the germ portions of the seed, leaving only the endosperm. This means that vital nutrients such as fiber, vitamins and natural oils are lost in the process.

It is important therefore, to look beyond the marketing hype on the front of a box of cereal and to read the list of ingredients very carefully. The biggest ingredient is required to be listed first. So if this not “whole wheat”, for example, then you are not looking at a product that is made with whole grain. A common trap is a label that says “made with whole grain”. The loophole here for manufacturers is that the product is often made with refined flour, in the case of wheat-based cereals, with a little bit of whole wheat thrown in for effect, since they are not required to say HOW much whole grain is actually used.

So what is one to do? What is the alternative to the myriad ready-made delicious ways to start the day, with sugar, chocolate and honey added in rash abundance to all those pops, flakes, clusters, loops, krispies and cookies?

Make your own. Here’s my formula, which so far has worked reasonably well with both my daughters, aged 7 and 3 and a 1/2.

I keep a selection of the simplest -read no added sugar and not too highly processed -cereals like oatmeal, Weetabix, wheat flakes and muesli mixes, because these typically have a much higher percentage of unrefined grain as compared to the bulk of cereals targeted at children.

To make these staid choices exciting, I keep fresh fruit and nuts handy that can be chopped and added easily to any of these cereals. Some additions that I find they enjoy are soft seedless dates, blueberries, apple,banana, raspberries, apple or pear compote, raisins, almonds and walnuts.

The beauty of this is that most of the time, you don’t even need to add any sugar since the fruits bring their own sweetness and flavour to the cereal though a small spoon of honey or unprocessed brown sugar works well with some of those additions.

This is not to say that we deny ourselves the occasional treat from a box of chocopops or honey loops. But even there, I sneak in to everyone’s bowl a spoon of wheatgerm, commonly available in powdered form, to console myself that there is a smidgen of nutrition in what my girls are eating that morning.

Hey, what’s a mother to do – just trying to beat the cereal makers at their insidious game.

References
http://cspinet.org/new/sugar.html
http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4776
http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=532
http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/fats.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whole_grain

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