Most people see breakfast cereals as a healthy way to start their own or their kids´ day. And why wouldn’t they? Producers boast health claims like “low-fat, nutrient-dense food with many essential vitamins and minerals”. But the recent news about chemicals found in many breakfast cereals has made people question these claims and think about how healthy these cereals actually are.
The chemicals found in those cereals (more on that later on) is not the only problem. Breakfast cereals are a highly processed food and with most processed foods, they contain all sorts of (added) ingredients that are not so healthy. The process used to make many breakfast cereals is called extrusion. This process involves the placement of breakfast cereals grains into a machine called an extruder after being mixed with water into a sludge. This sludge is forced out of tiny holes at high temperatures and pressure, shaping them into cute shapes that your kids love so much, like little o’s, stars, flakes, and puffs. Then they are sprayed with a coating of oil and sugar to keep them crispy and crunchy. Much of the nutrients are destroyed in this process, and any essential fatty acids are denatured, making them useless to our bodies. So, the extrusion process destroys most of the grains’ natural nutrients which is one of the reasons why many breakfast cereals are fortified, although extrusion can destroy those added nutrients as well. But synthetic (man-made) vitamins and minerals are not readily absorbed by the body. In addition, the proteins in extruded grains are fundamentally altered, leaving a product that may be toxic. Extrusion is used by both organic cereals as well as conventional brands.
One of the main added ingredients in most breakfast cereals is sugar or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Starting the day with a high-sugar breakfast cereal will spike your blood sugar and insulin levels. After a few hours your sugar level can come down quickly and your body craves something high-carb, creating a circle of eating.
Another misleading term is “whole grain”, because most of the products labeled as such are primarily made of refined grains and whole grains make up just a very small amount of the total ingredients used. Many cereals are marketed at children, using cartoon figures, bright colors and action figures. This causes children to associate breakfast cereals with entertainment and fun and it also affects taste preferences. Studies show that children prefer the taste of foods that have popular cartoon characters on the food packaging.
A big problem with processed foods is the high amount of GMO´s in them. Research shows that GMO’s in our food supply are causing increased allergies, digestive problems, liver problems, issues with fertility (even sterility), and many other problems. Don’t be misled by the term “natural” which suggests that the product is free from pesticide chemicals and genetically engineered ingredients. There is little regulation to guide what exactly is in these “natural” products, and many products labeled as “natural” actually contain ingredients from genetically modified corn, soy, canola, and sugar beets. While genetically modified ingredients are prohibited in certified organic food products, “natural” products have no such requirements. In a survey of natural cereal manufacturers conducted by The Organic & Non-GMO Report, several natural cereal manufacturers admitted that their products may contain GM ingredients. For example, Kashi brand cereals (Kellogg’s) contains “high levels” of GMOs, Whole Foods’ 365 brand Corn Flakes contains “high levels” of GMOs (more than 50% GE corn), and Quaker Oats (PepsiCo), manufacturer of Mother’s Natural Cereals, has admitted that because it buys bulk grains such as corn, soy, and canola “there is always a possibility that those grains may contain GMO material due to cross contact during manufacturing and transportation.”
Most GMOs are sprayed with glyphosate (Monsanto´s Roundup), an herbicide linked to cancer, so avoiding GMOs also helps you avoid glyphosate residue on your food. Glyphosate is very problematic and is a “probable carcinogen” according to the World Health Organization. The EWG´s (Environmental Working Group) recommended maximum daily intake of glyphosate in food is 0.01 milligrams. So for a 60-gram portion of food this means a daily intake limit of 160 ppb of glyphosate. According to two tests carried out by EWG almost all breakfast cereals contained residues of glyphosate (first test: 43 out of 45 cereals and second test: 28 out of 28 cereals). The vast majority even contained residues of glyphosate at levels higher than what EWG scientists consider protective of children’s health with an adequate margin of safety (first test: 31 out of 45 cereals and second test: 26 out of 28 cereals). Exceeding these levels means that a single serving of those products would exceed EWG’s health benchmark. Some scientists consider EWG´s limits to be too strict, but why expose your kids to a possible risk when you can avoid taking the risk in the first place?
Do you really want to have breakfast cereals? Then try to do the following:
Choose one that has less than 5 grams sugar per 100 grams and at least 3 grams of fiber per 100 grams (read the food label to check these amounts).
Read the ingredients list. The first three ingredients listed are the most important ones. Pay attention to different kinds of sugar, because food manufacturers are sometimes sneaky and may use tricks to hide the amount of sugar that is in their products. If sugar is listed several times under different names, even if it is not in the first three spots, then the product is probably very high in sugar.
Beware of empty claims such as “natural” or “whole grain”.
Of course, the best would be to not buy these breakfast cereals at all and to opt for simple foods, for example oats, organic yogurt with nuts and fruits, homemade smoothies, homemade granola or eggs with veggies.