The truth about breakfast cereals

They may be a tasty instant meal, but what's actually in our breakfast cereals? Joanna Blythman investigates

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You wonder how long we can keep referring to the full British cooked breakfast as ‘traditional’, when most people have long since relegated it to an occasional weekend treat. Nowadays, in those whirlwind minutes before we get out of the house, it’s the breakfast cereal that we reach for, not eggs and bacon.

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This national switch might seem like a healthy trend. The classic fry-up has had a bad press. We have been worried about fat in bacon and sausages and cholesterol in eggs, and felt that we lacked the time to cook. So the lure of a ready-to-eat cereal, in a box plastered with fit bodies and scientific information that appears to vouch for the healthiness of the contents, has proved irresistible to many. But when you take a harder look at many of our most popular cereals, this confidence could be misplaced.

Processed food

The first generation of breakfast cereals, which appeared decades ago – things such as cornflakes and puffed wheat – are little more than processed forms of commodity crops. They often have all or most of their nutritional goodness removed in the production process, so that they offer little more than empty calories from refined starch. This can make what’s left of the cereal somewhat tasteless, so large quantities of salt and sugar are often added to make it palatable.

You may not notice when you eat them, but some brands of cornflakes, for instance, are saltier than seawater, according to nutrition experts. Puffed rice cereals, on the other hand, may not seem terribly sweet, but if you taste milk that has recently had some in, that sweetness becomes apparent.

Cereals such as wheat biscuits can claim to be more nutritious because they contain wholewheat. But many people find that cereals that do not already contain added salt and sugars are rather bland to eat unless liberally sprinkled with sugar, which defeats the purpose. Breakfast cereals aimed at children, meanwhile, are typically made from refined grain meal, reformed with sweeteners and sometimes flavourings into appealing shapes. These can have levels of sugar to rival confectionery.

Manufacturers work hard to give such salty-sweet products an aura of health. Some say that their breakfast cereals ‘supply energy’ and are ‘part of a balanced diet’. That sounds good, whether you are the parent of growing children or an adult struggling with weight gain, but it is just another way of saying that the product, like any food, contains calories. However, these calories can come stripped of most of the nutritional benefits found in food from less-processed sources.

Another ruse to make breakfast cereals seem healthy is to label them as ‘low fat’. Since cereals are naturally
low in fat anyway, this is only what you might expect, but it can help to distract attention from any sugars and sweeteners in the product.

Added health benefits?

When it comes to breakfast cereals aimed at children, refined products are given a healthy profile by being fortified with synthetically made vitamins and minerals. These are only replacing the naturally occurring vitamins and minerals removed in processing. However, long lists of vitamins and minerals down the side of packs put an aura of health around the contents and give parents the idea that these cereals supply all the micronutrients children need, when many would argue that they fall short of being an all-round healthy food.

Breakfast cereals of the muesli type are marketed to adults. A Swiss/German import to the UK, muesli is a time-honoured mixture of whole grains with nuts and dried fruits. Muesli can be both flavoursome and extremely healthy, but many of the most popular brands are full of sugar or sweeteners
in the form of added honey, malt, rice or corn syrup. On closer examination of the contents, such products often owe much of their bulk to composite flakes where cereal flour has been mixed with sugar of some type, rather than minimally processed cereals.

Granola-style mueslis, in the North American style, are typically stuck together with large quantities of oil and sugar, or other sweeteners such as maple or golden syrup. That they can be delicious is undeniable, but they are often not a health food. Watch out for granola-style breakfast cereal bars – it may be best to think of them as a pudding or cake.

It may be worth checking out wholefood shops and the sections of supermarkets catering for people with food allergies for alternatives. They now stock an eclectic selection of cereals made from grains such as spelt, millet and quinoa.

When our shelves are wall-to-wall with breakfast cereals that have a debatable nutritional profile, it may be time to ask whether we really need them every day. As our guide to DIY breakfast cereals (see below) shows, with just a little effort you can take back control of breakfast and put something healthier and better tasting at the heart of it.

If you fancy an alternative to shop-bought cereal, why not try making your own?

It’s hard to improve on porridge in winter.
Traditionalists make porridge by patiently stirring pre-soaked pinhead oatmeal, water and a pinch of salt, but it can also be made in minutes using ordinary medium or fine oatmeal, or softer porridge oats. So there’s no need to pay a premium for instant oat products. Stir in frozen berries or serve with prunes or a compote of seasonal fruit.

Homemade muesli.
Buy a muesli base – wholefood shops often have a good choice – or make up your own base mix using a variety of grain flakes, such as rye, barley, oats or spelt. Add nuts then bake in a low oven for 15-20 minutes. This makes the nuts and grains taste toasted. Cool and add your favourite dried fruits.
 

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Give Bircher muesli a whirl in spring and summer.
For the famous Swiss wet muesli, simply soak oats with natural yogurt, milk or apple juice and grated apple until soft (half an hour will do it), then stir in chopped toasted nuts and fresh (or frozen) berries to make a deliciously sloppy mixture.