And the winner of the healthiest Cold Cereal Contest is--
Frosted Mini-Wheats! (July 13, 2005)
Updated March 7, 2007--see notes below on Kashi Go Lean, Nature's Path Organic Hot Oatmeal and Weightwatchers cereal
I'm joking, right? Those sugar-encrusted little rectangles of wheat, healthiest of all? But I jest not. After a careful review of cold cereals at the local Costco, it seems clear that Frosted Mini-Wheats have the least harmful combination of bad things (fat, sugar and salt) and the highest content of good things (protein and fiber).
The big shocker was the high sodium (salt) content of so many of the cereals. If I was of a conspiracy bent of mind, I would suspect the pharmaceutical industry of secretly paying the cereals companies to load up their seemingly benign products with salt, thereby causing ever higher blood pressure in unsuspecting Americans, who would then require that many more doses of highly profitable blood-pressure reduction drugs...
The second surprise was that the "healthier alternatives" (Raisin Bran and Kashi brand Go Lean) had excessive amounts of sugar and salt, decisively lowering their score in the "healthiest cereal" contest.
But let's not get ahead of the analysis.
Highest sugar content: Sugar Frosted Flakes? Nope: Raisin Bran (19 grams per serving), followed by Kashi Go Lean Crunch with 13 grams. (Some health food, eh?) Frosted Flakes and Frosted Mini-Wheats came in with 12 grams each. Good old Cheerios scored lowest with 1 gram, right in with Oatmeal. Cinnamon Toast Crunch scored high with 10 grams, and Wheat Chex tipped in with a modest 5 grams.
Most calories from fat: Cinnamon Toast Crunch clocked in with 30 calories of fat in each 130-calorie serving (guess where the "crunch" comes from). Go Lean Crunch came in with 25 calories of fat in a 190-calorie serving, while Frosted Flakes checked with the lowest of all, 0 calories from fat. Way to go Tony! Mini-Wheats had only 10 calories of fat per serving.
Highest salt content: Cheerios has 210 mg. of salt in each serving, as does Cinnamon Toast Crunch; Raisin Bran is weighed down by 300 mg. of salt, while Wheat Chex must be made in the Salton Sea, for it has a staggering 420 mg. of salt per serving--fully 20% of all the salt you should eat in a day. Meanwhile Frosted Mini-Wheats has only 5 mg. of salt, comparable to wholesome plain cooked Oatmeal with 0.
Highest Fiber content: Tony the Tiger doesn't do too well on this one with only 1 gram of fiber--ditto for Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Cheerios comes with 3 grams of fiber, while Mini-Wheats contains a respectable 6 grams; leaders are Raisin Bran and Go Lean Crunch with 8 grams each.
Highest Protein (cereal only, no milk): Go Lean Crunch tops out with 9 grams of protein, but Mini-Wheats comes in second with 6 grams, good old Oatmeal does well with 5 grams, while Cheerios and Honey Bunch of Oats score 3 grams and protein-deficient Tony the Tiger (Frosted Flakes) stumbles in with only 1 gram.
Conclusion: if you look not just at sugar, calories and fat, but at salt, fiber and protein, then it's clear that Frosted Mini-Wheats is the healthiest all-around choice of uncooked breakfast cereals. Yes, the sugar content is high, but it's less than Raisin Bran or Go Lean, supposedly "healthier" cereals. With super-low sodium, it's my top pick for an "honest" cereal--i.e. one which doesn't claim to be "healthy"--right up there with oatmeal. All that extra salt in packaged foods is a real detriment to health. Mini-Wheats also scores at the top in fiber and protein. So what's not to like? Sure, Oatmeal is a healthy choice, and I eat a lot of it (with flax seeds for all that yummy omega 3)--but with honey, and who knows how much sucrose I add in that "healthy choice" fashion... maybe as much as those 12 grams on the the Mini-Wheats....
(Note: one packet of honey--1/2 ounce, or 14 grams, or 1 tablespoon--contains 11 grams of sugars--about the same as many of these cereals. I think I use about half a tablespoon per serving of cooked oatmeal, or 5.5 grams of sugar.)
2/23/07 update: A reader recently informed me that the Kashi Go Lean nutritional data posted here was no longer current. But when I went to Costco yesterday and examined the package, I am hard-pressed to find any changes from the data I noted in 2005 except perhaps an increase in potassium--a data point I did not note in 2005--which is a common "salt substitute".
03/07/07: Go Lean mystery solved: I was puzzled by a reader's report that Kashi Go Lean had reduced its fat, sugar and salt content, yet the Go Lean package at Costco was unchanged. It turns out that there are two Go Lean cereals: Go Lean, and Go Lean Crunch. The data above is for Go Lean Crunch. "Standard" Go Lean's data is:
This is considerably better than the Go Lean Crunch, offering a higher protein, lower-calorie cereal than the Crunch version. The sodium content is moderate, but not near zero, and the potassium (a salt substitute) seems high. Sugars at 6 grams is moderate but not low.
For comparison's sake, here is plain Quaker Oats' (no additives at all) data:
What is noteworthy is that grain--oats--naturally contains small amounts of fats and sugars. A fat-free and sugars-free cereal would not be possible without serious processing.
I also checked out two other cereals marketed as "healthy": Nature's Path Organic Hot Oatmeal and Weightwatchers cereal (both the versions stocked at Costco). My first observation is that most cereals' serving size is about 50 grams; the Weightwatchers cereal serving was listed as only 40 grams--reducing the comparative calorie count by 20% compared to the average cereal serving size. Talk about having to read the fine print. Here's the Weightwatchers cereal data:
In other words: to make an "apples to apples" comparison, add 20% to all the numbers above. Even without the adjustments, this cereal hardly looks as healthy as plain oatmeal.
The Nature's Path Organic Hot Oatmeal didn't strike me as all that "healthy" either, when compared to plain oatmeal:
Again, the calories from fat, the high sodium and sugars content do not compare with plain oatmeal sweetened with two teaspoons of honey (7 grams of sugars).
My conclusion: Go Lean Crunch contains significantly higher levels of fat, sodium and sugar compared to other packaged cold cereals, and remains a deceptively labeled and marketed product in my view. Is a cereal with three times the fat of Mini-Wheats, one more gram of sugar than Mini-Wheats, and 19 times the salt of Mini-Wheats a "healthier" "leaner" cereal? On what basis? This kind of "read the fine print" deceptive packaging is rife in the American food industry, and it makes it very difficult for consumers to sort out what's actually healthy. In a fair analysis, Go Lean Crunch cannot be considered a "healthy" food compared to plain old oatmeal with 0 fat, 0 sodium and 1 gram of natural sugars. It would be more accurate to label it "Crunch Breakfast Cereal" without the deceptive "Go Lean" marketing.
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