Sort the wheat from the chaff with our pick of healthy cereals, as recommended by experts.
Medically reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson and words by Annie Hayes
Even though breakfast is often called ‘the most important meal of the day’, it’s also usually the meal occasion you’re least inclined to invest your culinary efforts into. Few of us have the time to prep, cook, and clean up after a hearty meal before 8am. This is where healthy cereals save the day, but how do you whether your cereal of choice is healthy or not?
Browsing the cereal aisle at your local supermarket, it can be difficult to discern genuinely healthy cereals from the sugar and salt-laden imposter brands.
To help make your morning choice more straightforward, we asked Jo Travers, dietitian for Love Your Gut, and Georgine Leung, nutritionist at Kurami, to explain which healthy cereals stand up to scrutiny:
10 healthy cereals to start your day
They call it breakfast for a reason. Depending on your sleeping habits, your first meal of the day typically breaks a 10, 12 or even 14 hour-long fast. ‘After sleeping all night – when your body is still using energy and nutrients – it’s important to ‘top-up’ the nutrients that we can’t store a great deal of; water-soluble vitamins and energy in particular,’ says Travers.
Healthy cereals are a source of carbohydrates, she says, which are the body’s first port of call for energy. ‘The evidence shows that although people who eat breakfast tend to consume more calories over the day, there is no difference in weight,’ Travers adds, ‘This suggests that the energy consumed during breakfast is being put to good use.’
When browsing healthy cereals, what should you look for on the label? ‘Cereals encompass a wide variety of grains – from wheat, maize, rice and oats, to less common types such as rye, teff, millet and sorghum,’ says Leung. ‘Sometimes, ‘pseudocereals’ such as quinoa and buckwheat may also be listed, due to the way these are consumed in the diet as a starchy base.’
‘The evidence shows that although people who eat breakfast tend to consume more calories over the day, there is no difference in weight.’
The term ‘whole grain’ is frequently referenced in healthy cereals. These refer to cereals that have the entire grain – outer bran, middle endosperm and inner germ – intact. They’re more nutrient-dense, says Leung, which means they are packed with essential vitamins and minerals including B vitamins, iron and zinc.
Whole grain cereals are also typically high in dietary fibre, which brings a whole host of health benefits – supporting your digestive, bowel and even heart health. Give your fibre and nutrient intake a boost at breakfast with our pick of 10 healthy cereals:
Among the healthiest grains on earth, oats are naturally high in vitamins, minerals, fibre – including highly healthful beta-glucan – and several powerful antioxidants, all wrapped up in around 24g of carbs, 5g of protein and 3g of fat per 40g serve. When buying oats, avoid pre-portioned or pre-flavoured options, since they’re usually high in added sugars. In order of nutritional value, oat groats are the highest, followed by oat bran, then steel-cut oats, then rolled oats, and finally instant oats.
Oats are extremely high in manganese, in fact a 40g bowl contains your recommended daily amount (RDA). The same serve also provides a rich source of phosphorus (approximately 20 per cent of your RDA), magnesium (around 15 per cent of your RDA), copper (10 per cent), iron (10 per cent), zinc (10 per cent) and vitamin B9 (five per cent), plus around 20 per cent of your vitamin B1 intake and 5 per cent of your vitamin B5 RDA. They also contain calcium, potassium, vitamin B6 and vitamin B3 in smaller quantities.
- Spelt flakes
Spelt is an ancient species of wheat that has been cultivated since approximately 5,000 BC, and has a similar nutritional profile to regular whole wheat. A 40g serving contains around 20 per cent of your manganese RDA, plus relatively high levels of phosphorus, vitamin B3, magnesium, zinc and iron (between four and seven per cent of your RDA). Spelt flakes also contain small amounts of calcium, selenium and vitamins B1, B6 and E, along with 2g protein per 40g serve, 0.5g fat, 10g carbohydrates, and around 55 calories.
Muesli is made by combining rolled oats, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and sometimes other rolled cereal grains such as wheat or rye flakes. Muesli typically has a higher protein and nutrient content than oats, but it often contains more calories. The nutritional profile of muesli will vary depending on the exact quantities of the additional ingredients, but it’s guaranteed to be high in fibre, vitamins and minerals. Avoid the pre-packaged varieties and make your own muesli to ensure there’s no additional nasties such as added sugar or preservatives. Start with a ratio of four parts grains, one part nuts and seeds, and one part dried fruit.
- Homemade granola
Granola is a baked cereal that typically combines rolled oats, nuts and seeds, and a sweetener like sugar or honey. It may also include other grains, dried fruit, spices, and nut butters. Like muesli, the nutritional profile varies widely depending on the specific ingredients used, but it’s generally rich in protein, fibre, and micronutrients.
Depending on the ingredients, granola can also be high in calories. It’s best to make your own granola so you can control the amount of sugar in the recipe, avoid added oils such as vegetable oil or coconut oil, and control the portions of calorie-dense nuts and seeds in the recipe.
- Sprouted grains
Sprouted grains are whole grain seeds that have just begun to sprout. Pretty much any whole grain – including whole-grain wheat, barley, rye, millet, rice and oats – can be sprouted. Sprouted grains can be easier to digest than whole grains, and the nutrients in them may also be easier for our bodies to absorb.
Sprouted grains can be easier to digest than whole grains, and the nutrients in them may also be easier for our bodies to absorb.
Most grains contain a substance called phytic acid that binds to minerals and makes them tricky to digest; the sprouting process helps break down phytic acid. However, sprouted grains can be more expensive than other healthy cereals.
- Shredded wheat
Shredded wheat typically contains 100 per cent whole wheat and nothing else, but it’s worth checking the label, since many brands add sugar. Wheat has a similar nutritional profile to spelt, and can similarly be a little flavourless when consumed on its own, so it’s worth investing in some toppings.
- Puffed rice
Most healthy cereals contain gluten, a family of proteins found in grains, including wheat, rye, spelt, and barley. In people with celiac disease, gluten triggers an immune response that damages the lining of the small intestine. Others prefer to avoid gluten due to an intolerance, for example people with digestive disorders.
Puffed rice cereal is a great alternative for people who can’t eat gluten, it doesn’t boast a particularly impressive nutritional profile, but there are small amounts of B vitamins, iron, potassium, zinc, copper, selenium, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese and vitamin E. The process of puffing rice has been shown to decrease the rice’s antioxidant content, so many brands fortify their product to make up for this.
Millet is a small cereal grain that belongs to the grass family. It provides more essential amino acids than most other cereals – equivalent to around 6g protein per 40g serve – and has the highest calcium content of all cereal grains, providing six per cent of your RDA in every 40g bowl. Millet also contains plenty of phosphorus and magnesium, and is rich in potent antioxidants. Plus, it’s gluten-free, making it a great option for people who have celiac disease or follow a gluten-free diet. Most people make millet into a creamy breakfast porridge.
- Rye flakes
Rye is a member of the wheat family, but contains fewer carbs and more vitamins and minerals than regular wheat. It’s exceptionally high in fibre, with a 40g bowl containing around 30 per cent of your RDA, plus 4g of protein, approximately 50 per cent of your manganese RDA, and high amounts of copper, phosphorus and magnesium. You can eat rye flakes raw with milk, soak them overnight – like ‘overnight oats’ – or cook them into porridge.
- Quinoa flakes
As well as being totally gluten-free, quinoa flakes are one of the few plant foods that contain all nine essential amino acids, which means they are a complete protein. Made from pressed quinoa seeds, they’re also high in fibre, magnesium, B vitamins, iron, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin E and various beneficial antioxidants. They may sound fancy, but quinoa flakes don’t need special treatment – they can be used in similar ways to oats e.g. eaten raw in muesli or heated in porridge.
7 tips to make healthy cereals more nutritious
Making your breakfast even more nutritious don’t take much effort– just a careful read of the label and a handful of toppings. Here’s seven expert tips for maximising the benefits of your favourite healthy cereals:
- Add fruit
If you’re concerned about the bland taste, try topping the cereal with fruit. ‘Fruit is an obvious topping that not only tastes nice but provides some water-soluble vitamins and makes breakfast into a balanced meal,’ says Travers. ‘Remember that we need to get at least five portions a day and breakfast provides a good opportunity to get one of these.’
- Top with nuts
‘Go for a sprinkle of desiccated coconut and different seeds and nuts,’ Leung suggests, ‘these are especially great when chopped and possibly toasted. Nuts and seeds are sources of protein, unsaturated fat, and fibre, which help to keep you feel fuller for longer too.’ The crunchiness is pleasing and adds texture, too – contributing to feelings of satiety.
- Try different milks
There are so many types of milks on the market, ranging from classic dairy milk to plant-based milk alternatives, says Leung. Dairy milk provides protein, B vitamins and the minerals calcium, zinc and iodine. ‘Whole and semi-skimmed milk contains fat, which provides the fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A and D,’ she says.
There are many types of milks on the market, ranging from classic dairy milk to plant-based milk alternatives.
Plant milks, meanwhile, have become more popular as an alternative. ‘There are now plenty of plant-based dairy alternatives available, made from soy, a range of nuts and even peas,’ she says. ‘They are generally lower in calories.’ Many are fortified with vitamin D, calcium, and other nutrients.
- Add protein
Give your breakfast cereal a protein boost by replacing milk with Greek yogurt, which is more nutritious, higher in protein, and easier to digest. Alternatively, you could add a tablespoon of peanut butter, or – for overnight oats or porridge – a scoop of protein powder.
- Watch out for salt
Cereals are often much higher in salt than they taste, says Travers. ‘Over time, salt can increase blood pressure which is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke,’ she warns. ‘The World Health Organisation recommends less than 6g salt per day so make sure, you check the salt when choosing your cereal.’
- Check for extra sugar
Don’t let sneaky hidden sugars sabotage your efforts. ‘Some breakfast cereals contain ‘free sugars’ – the type which is added by the manufacturer, so it is useful to check the ingredient list,’ says Leung. ‘Also be mindful that sugar may exist in other forms, such as honey, syrup or malt extract. Free sugars provide calories and are the type we should be careful about, as they may contribute to tooth decay.’
- Focus on fibre
High fibre cereal keeps you fuller for longer, says Travers. ‘It also slows down the digestion of carbohydrates into glucose, keeping blood sugar levels stable,’ she says. ‘Fibre does plenty of other things too – like helping to excrete excess cholesterol from the body and providing a food source for the good bacteria in the gut.’
Adequate fibre intake is also associated with a lower risk for certain illnesses including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer, says Leung. ‘It’s recommended that we eat at least 30g of dietary fibre each day, but average daily intakes in the UK are only around 18g,’ she says.