Get to Know Your Food

Let’s get to know your food! All the healthy changes you want to make in 2017 will be affected by what you choose to eat. Rather than moving ahead with resolutions at lightning speed only to give up just as quickly, why not take a moment to gather some information that can help you sustain a plan? It’s always tempting to skip the preparation phase in the hope of getting results sooner, but, as the 42.4% of us who never succeed with our resolutions know, the results don’t usually get here soon enough to keep us on track.

In order to follow any sort of healthy eating plan, you must get to know your food. This month, we’ll explore some commonly consumed foods so that you can decide whether or not they are in line with your goals. What’s healthier for me will be gluten-free. What’s healthier for you may be lower in salt. You and I can both make the best choices when we are equipped with good information.
Breakfast seems like a good place to start. While its dominance has declined in the past few years, cereal is still the most commonly consumed breakfast food in the US. The three top selling cereals in 2015 (2016 figures are not yet available) were: Honey Nut Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, and Honey Bunches of Oats. If you’re choosing one of those for breakfast, what are you really choosing?

Honey Nut Cheerios
Serving Size is 3/4 cup.
That 3/4 cup has 110 calories.
The calorie count isn’t bad. Of course, you’ll probably pair that with milk which will add a few. If you are only concerned about calories, you might choose this for breakfast. But calories are not the only consideration. Some calories provide better nutrition than others.

Where do Honey Nut Cheerios get their calories?
When we take a look at the ingredients, sugar is listed second. Ingredient lists are compiled in order of quantity included. When an ingredient is listed first, it means that there is more of that ingredient in the product than any other ingredient. In addition to sugar, this cereal contains honey, and brown sugar syrup which are also sugars. All of these sugars are carbohydrates.

Sugar gives you quick energy, but it does not provide a sustained energy source. Carbohydrates including sugar can be detrimental to blood sugar levels if you have diabetes. It is best for diabetics to limit carbohydrates to fresh vegetables, fruits, and legumes and further, to limit starchy vegetables.

What about Sodium?
The Honey Nut Cheerios nutrition label lists 190mg of sodium per serving. The average piece of white bread has 147mg of sodium. A half cup of milk will add 54mg of sodium. Many physicians recommend no more than 1500mg of sodium per day for those with heart disease.

How do Frosted Flakes compare?
Frosted Flakes

Serving size is 3/4 cup.
Calories per serving are 120.
Frosted Flakes, like Honey Nut Cheerios, list sugar as the second ingredient. In addition, they contain high fructose corn syrup which is also a sugar. This leads to a total carb count of 28g per serving. The sodium content is 150mg per serving, making Frosted Flakes slightly higher in calories, carbs, and sodium than Honey Nut Cheerios.

What about Honey Bunches of Oats?
Honey Bunches of Oats

Serving size is 3/4 cup.
Calories per serving are 120.
Sugar is the third ingredient listed on this label. In addition, Honey Bunches of Oats contain brown sugar, corn syrup, malted corn and barley syrup, and honey. The total carb count per serving is 25g, and sodium per serving is 135mg. This cereal has slightly fewer carbs than Frosted Flakes, but slightly more than the 22g found in Honey Nut Cheerios. Honey Bunches of Oats are lower in sodium than the other two of the top selling three cereals.

If sugar is the second or third ingredient, what is the first?
The primary ingredient in breakfast cereals is some type of grain – wheat, oats, corn, and rice are common. Wheat, wheat contaminated oats, and malt (from barley) are ingredients that mean many breakfast cereals are not gluten-free.

Whole grains naturally contain protein, but grains are often refined into flour before they become cereal. The process of refining removes many of the nutrients including protein. With the nutrients gone, the manufacturer must then add something in order to provide the small amounts of protein listed on cereal labels. These additions may be in the form of nuts or soy protein isolate.

Cereals are full of vitamins and minerals, aren’t they?
These grain-based products and others like them do not naturally contain all the vitamins and minerals that cereals are touted for providing. That is why you may see the word “fortified” in descriptions. The manufacturer fortifies the product by adding ingredients like ascorbic acid (vitamin C), niacinamide, iron, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B4), riboflavin (vitamin B2), thiamin hydrochloride (vitamin B1), vitamin A palmitate, tocopherols (vitamin E), folic acid, vitamin B12, and vitamin D.

What else is in there?
Most boxed breakfast cereals contain some kind of preservative like BHT and many have “natural flavor” added. Natural flavor is a mystery ingredient defined under the Code of Federal Regulations as “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional” (21CFR101.22).
Should I eat cereal for breakfast?
Only you can decide what’s best for you. The primary advantage of boxed cereal is convenience. It can be prepared in seconds, stored for a long period of time, and doesn’t require refrigeration.

Obviously, there are more than 3 cereal choices, so you may be able to find one that helps you better meet your goals. For instance, if you want to limit sugar and sodium and are concerned about whole grains, Post Shredded Wheat Original Spoon Size contains only whole wheat and the chemical preservative BHT. A one cup serving contains 6g of protein, no sodium, and no sugars. It is important to note that even without added sugar, a serving still delivers 36g of total carbs.

Breakfast cereal is a processed food. If your plan is to limit processed foods and added chemicals, you may want to choose something different.

Is boxed breakfast cereal the best choice for breakfast?
It seems like there should be an easy answer for this. After all, there’s science, right? Science should tell us. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

The WebMD website says, “Want to statistically reduce your risk of death from all causes (in other words, your total mortality rate) by 15% just by making one dietary change? Choose whole grains whenever you can.” That’s a pretty strong statement indicating that whole grain cereals are a great choice, but the statement is made in reference to switching from refined grain to whole grain, so cereals made with refined grains would not be recommended.

Dr. David Perlmutter author of “Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar — Your Brain’s Silent Killers” would disagree that whole grains are beneficial. He draws a connection between consuming whole grains and experiencing dementia, ADHD, anxiety, chronic headaches, depression, and more. Cardiologist Dr. William Davis author of “Wheat Belly” notes problems caused by eating wheat range from minor rashes and high blood sugar to the unattractive stomach bulges that he calls “wheat bellies”. Obviously, these doctors advise against consuming foods like breakfast cereal, cinnamon rolls, doughnuts, pancakes, waffles, bread, pasta, cookies, and cake.

There are disagreements within the medical community. Some old research is relied on even when new research conflicts with its results. If you want to be really confused, try reading this review of the evidence supporting the benefits of breakfast cereal:

So, I’ll just answer for myself. Is breakfast cereal the best choice for breakfast?

For me? No. That doesn’t mean I never ever eat cereal. I love party mix during the holidays, and I buy a box once or twice a year when it sounds like a good treat. With that said, I am not comfortable with the high levels of sugar and carbohydrates, low level of naturally occurring nutrients, amount of added chemicals, or potential for cross-contact with gluten (even in products labeled gluten-free) in processing.

That means if I choose cereal as my primary breakfast day in and day out, I will experience a daily internal struggle. I would rather feel good about eating breakfast, so I make a different choice. I can then use the energy I would have expended struggling with myself to learn something new, laugh with my grandson, or add to my yoga routine.

Next week, we’ll explore some other breakfast alternatives you may want to consider. In the meantime, you’ll have a chance to read the labels on your favorite cereals to see if they are in line with your health goals for 2017.

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a big bowl of fresh blackberries with a tiny bit of cream. Bon appétit!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Author: Cheri Thriver

Hello, Cheri Thriver here blogging about cooking, thriving, and the intersection of the two. I’ve been living a gluten-free lifestyle for over 15 years. I understand that it’s rarely a lack of knowledge or the availability of appropriate food that keeps us from making healthy choices. More often than not, it’s an emotional connection, previous trauma, or fear of social reprisal that keeps us stuck. My wish is that you’ll find something here that informs, entertains, or inspires you to change anything that needs to be changed for you to live fully and thrive.

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