Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 11, 2021

Cereals are a quick and convenient breakfast. They can be a good choice for breakfast if you pick a healthier, low-sugar cereal. Check out these tips on how to choose a low-sugar breakfast cereal. 

1. Know Your Recommended Sugar Levels

On average, American adults consume about 77 grams of sugar a day. American children consume about 81 grams a day. This is far more than the recommended sugar levels. ‌

 The American Heart Association recommends that women and children should consume no more than six teaspoons (25 grams or 100 calories) of sugar a day. For men, the recommended amount is 9 teaspoons (36 grams or 150 calories).

2. Read the Nutrition Labels

Many breakfast cereals contain a high amount of added sugar. Some breakfast cereals can contain as much as 20 grams (5 teaspoons) of sugar per serving.‌

Some cereals may seem to be healthier options, with high fiber or whole grains. But these may still have a lot of added sugar. That’s why it’s important to read the nutrition labels. A low-sugar breakfast cereal is one that contains no more than one teaspoon (four grams) of sugar per serving.‌

You can also find out what percentage of the serving size is sugar. Divide the amount of sugar in grams by the total serving size in grams. Then multiply your answer by 100. Pick cereals with less than 20% sugar.

3. Look at the Top Three Ingredients

Is sugar listed as one of the first three ingredients on the cereal box? Put it down and look for another. Pick a cereal which lists sugar lower down on the ingredients list.‌

Manufacturers are required to list ingredients in order. Ingredients used in the greatest amount are listed first, those in smaller amounts follow in descending order.

4. Know the Other Names of Sugar

When you read the ingredient list on a breakfast cereal, take note of these other names of added sugar:

  • Sugar molecules ending in “ose”, like dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Corn syrup
  • Corn sweetener
  • Honey
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • Brown sugar
  • Invert sugar
  • Malt sugar
  • Molasses 
  • Raw sugar
  • Syrup

5. Pick a Cereal Marketed to Adults

Cereals targeted to children tend to have higher levels of sugar. A study of 161 cereals found that 46% were marketed at children. Compared to adult cereals, these children’s cereals had more sugar and sodium but less protein and fiber.

A study found that children are equally happy with the cereals they are given, whether it's high sugar or low sugar. Those given high-sugar cereals ate significantly more cereal and sugar than those given low-sugar cereals. This study also found that those in the low-sugar cereal group were more likely to add fruits to their cereal.

6. Check the Serving Size

Serving sizes can vary among different cereals. They’re also likely to be far smaller than you expect them to be. Most breakfast cereal serving sizes range from ½ cup to ¾ cup.‌

A survey found that 92% of people exceeded the recommended serving size when pouring out cereal. Those who poured cereal into the largest bowl (28 ounces) overpoured the most.‌

Researchers studying cereal packaging found that the pictures of portion sizes on 158 cereal boxes were about 64.7% larger than the recommended serving sizes on their nutrition labels. Cereal boxes that showed larger portion sizes influenced study participants to pour 17.8% more cereal than those pouring from boxes showing the recommended serving size.‌

Eating more than the serving size means that you’re eating more sugar and calories than intended.

7. Add Your Own Healthy Toppings

With the right cereal, your breakfast can be a good source of important nutrients. Fortified cereals contain B vitamins and iron. Breakfast cereals with whole grains can be a good fiber source. Cereals are often consumed with milk, which provides protein, calcium, vitamin A, zinc, and riboflavin.‌

But if that bowl of plain cereal doesn’t seem too exciting, try adding your own toppings. Some healthy toppings for breakfast cereal include:‌

Nuts. Adding nuts to your cereal increases the amount of protein and healthy fats in your breakfast. Try some chopped walnuts or sliced almonds. Nuts can be high in calories, so don’t add too many. ‌

Fresh fruits. Some breakfast cereals contain dried fruits like raisins, which have more sugar than fresh fruits. Instead, slice up a banana, chop up an apple, or toss some berries into your cereal for some sweetness and extra flavor. ‌

Seeds. Seeds are a great nutritious cereal topping. Flaxseed adds Omega-3 fatty acids to your cereal. Hemp seeds increase the amount of protein. 

Spices. Add flavor and a hint of sweetness with a sprinkling of ground cinnamon or nutmeg. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Heart Association: “How much sugar is too much?” “Sugar 101.”

BMC Public Health: “Depicted serving size: cereal packaging pictures exaggerate serving sizes and promote overserving.”

Cleveland Clinic: “How to Pick a Healthy Cereal.”

Consumer Reports: “Cereal portion control matters.”

Journal of the American Dietetic Association: “ Examining the nutritional quality of breakfast cereals marketed to children.”

Michigan State University Extension: “Cereal, it’s what’s for breakfast!”

Nutrition Bulletin: “Breakfast cereals – why all the bad press?”

Pediatrics: “Effects of serving high-sugar cereals on children's breakfast-eating behavior.”

Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter: “Q. How much sugar in cold cereal is too much?”

University of Florida, Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences: “SHOPPING FOR HEALTH: BREAKFAST CEREALS.”

U.S. Food & Drug Administration: “Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives & Colors.”

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