by Marion Nestle
May 2 2007

Dealing with Cereals

… You can appreciate why I so enjoy the cereal aisle. I like reading the health claims on the processed cereals and wondering what marketers will dream up next. The packages are, in their weird way, fun to look at. They represent the best thinking of marketers about how to get you to eat processed cereals, to believe that they are good for you, and to insist that nothing else will do for breakfast.

Fortunately, the slotting-fee system makes it easier to find the healthier options. All you have to do is look for the worst real estate and reach high or off to the sides for the ones with the short ingredient lists, lots of fiber, and not much sugar…. If you like your cereal sweeter, you can always add your own sugar and still come out ahead. High-fiber, whole-grain cereals, with milk and fruit added, make a fine breakfast and one that is a lot more nutritious than a bagel or or roll made with processed flour, or a pastry loaded with fat and sugars.

  • An extraordinary book; an extraordinary accomplishment. In one thoroughly enjoyable read, I learned more than I learned in the last few months of trying to finally gain some real understanding of food and nutrition.


  • Thanks so much. It means a lot to hear that someone has actually read my book and got something out of it. Who could ask for more? Not me!

  • Java Master

    I struggle to understand what actually comprises the food that I and my family eat. I am not trained as a chemist, therefore, the list of ingredients in many processed and packaged foods befuddles me. I want to insist that labeling requirements be furthered strengthend for all catogories of foods and beverages, that “plain english” translations of ingredient lists be available at the point of purchase for many food items. as I don’t always have the choice of eating “fresh” food items. Cost and convenience still play some role in my purchas decisions. By the way, why can’t we get a solid handle on what constitutes “organic”?

  • I appreciate this last comment but think we do have a solid handle on Certified Organic, at least. That label means the producers followed rules established by USDA and were inspected to make sure they did. That part of the system seems pretty clean. Whether the organic rules are adequate is another matter. The U.K. Soil Association has just proposed that nothing that comes into Great Britain on an airplane be allowed to be labeled as organic. It will be interesting to see how that proposal fares.

  • Theresa

    I read labels on every package of food I buy. If I don’t know what the ingredients are, I don’t buy it. If a product has any hydrogenated oils or fats then there probably are trans fats in it, so I don’t buy it (even if the nut. info. states “0”–it’s the principle!). If there is high fructose corn syrup, I don’t buy it. The best foods are the ones with no labels…the ones in the produce aisle, and in most cases they don’t even need cooking! How easy is that?

  • Remember the Grape Nuts challenge in the 80s? It was marketed as a healthy breakfast that lasted all morning. Try Grape Nuts for a week of breakfasts and feel better. No matter how much I tried, it never worked for me (or many others who tried it). I was always hungry within an hour or two. Same for oatmeal, even steel cut oatmeal (the least processed kind) and even worse for bagels. But a two or three egg breakfast cooked in butter always lasted until “lunchtime”. But back then I was convinced that cereal was healthier than eggs and butter (what fools we mortals be).

    Now I know why that was sooooo wrong. Cereal, even whole grain and high fiber, makes a terrible breakfast, especially if it is not balanced with an adequate amount of protein and fat. Cereal starches, let alone the sugars that are added to many cereals, raise blood sugar and insulin levels. Then the blood sugar drops, sometimes much to low, energy disappears, and the hunger pangs return with a vengance long before lunchtime. If more carbohydrate-rich foods are eaten in response as a mid-morning snack, the cycle repeats itself. Even low sugar, high fiber whole grain cereals raise blood sugar higher than optimal, but over a longer time, rather than a quick spike and drop. Enough days (decades) with roller coaster blood sugar and insulin levels or chronically elevated post-meal levels and diabetes is in the forecast.

    But eat a breakfast of mostly protein and fat and insulin levels remain low, blood sugar remains steady, and hours can go by before the hunger returns. Energy levels remain steady, too.

    Makes sense, too. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had no access to breakfast cereals. They had to rely on proteins, fats (they loved fats!) and small amounts of carbohydrates in leafy greens and perhaps some tubers. What fruits they did have were far less sweet than the hybrids of today and were seasonal. They probably did fatten up on fruit (perhaps some honey if they were lucky) in the summer, which would make their body fat last through the leaner winter months (hopefully). And those long-lasting fat and protein breakfasts (if they even had breakfast; there is evidence they didn’t hunt on a full stomach) would have served them well on long hunts. After all, there were no drive-thrus in the Stone Ages. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that intermittent fasts (some days fasting and some days eating or only eating one larger meal in a day) is far healthier than even eating 3 meals a day. But that is much easier to accomplish if sugars and starches are minimal components in the diet.

    Unfortunately, I learned this a few decades too late. But eating more like a Paleo keeps my blood sugar, insulin levels, and weight in a healthy normal range; if I eat the carbs that most Americans eat, I get diabetic blood sugar and and abnormal insulin levels. And no, I’m not obese (BMI in the 22 range). Did my doctor realize this? No, despite a history of gestational diabetes (he thought I couldn’t be diabetic if I wasn’t fat). Simple testing of blood sugar with a personal glucometer was all it took to see the evidence in black and white and keep me away from the deadly cereal aisle.

  • “Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.” – Samuel Johnson

    Cereals are almost worthless for a large segment of the human population. They provide little usable nutritional value other than calories. Grains do contain some vitamins, but they also contain phytic acid, which binds with minerals and escorts them straight out of the body. Many humans have some subclinical level of sensitivity to the gluten contained in wheat, oats, rye, and barley, and gluten sensitivity leads to enormous problems in properly absorbing nutrients. And of course grains are high in carbohydrates and must be cooked before eating, which increases the speed with which the carbohydrate enters the bloodstream.

    Like Anna, I find that even so-called “low-glycemic” steel cut oats leave me hungry in just a matter of hours, even when I add ample fat in the form of butter or cream. And I am sure that she and I are not freaks of nature! The reason humanity developed the custom of eating three meals a day is that human digestion should take about 5 hours, and sure enough, if I eat a moderate-protein, high-fat meal, I am hungry again in just about 5 hours. If you are hungry two hours after a meal, you are not eating properly.

  • Acy

    I too found oats did not sustain me until lunch or even morning tea until I added 2 tablespoons of unprocessed psyllium (fibre) to my cooked porridge. Make sure you add water to the psyllium before mixing through. I then add half a teaspoon of cinnamon (helps keep blood glucose levels low) and a small amount of fresh fruit. This is working really well in keeping me not hungry and with plenty of energy – hope it helps someone else too.

  • Esteban

    I bought some Post Shredded Wheat the other day and read the ingredients: “Whole Grain Wheat. To preserve the natural wheat flavor, BHT is added to the packaging material.” So I did some research and learned that BHT is often put into the plastic bag that contains the food instead of directly added to the food itself. Many sources recommend that you avoid BHT as much as possible. Marion, what are your thoughts on this? It seems to me they ruined a perfectly good cereal by adding BHT to its packaging.

  • As far as I can tell, nobody can make head or tail of whether it’s good or bad. It’s probably OK in the amounts that leach in but Center for Science in the Public Interest advises avoidance whenever possible. So avoid, and let the company know why.