My Beef with Breakfast Cereals

Most “real foodies” — a term I loathe, but it gets my point across succinctly, and let’s face it, succinct is not my strong suit — avoid boxed breakfast cereals like the plague, and when I hopped on that real food train, I promptly removed breakfast cereals from our pantry as well.

breakfast cereal

It didn’t take much to convince me, as I’ve never cared much for boxed breakfast cereals myself. As a child, I thought they all tasted the same (which, they do, if you pay attention — as an adult, I have determined that it must be the synthetic vitamins they fill them with) and I preferred other breakfast cuisine.

When I bought cereal, I always bought fairly “healthy” cereals, with the occasional box of Lucky Charms for a special treat. But as I started reading up on our food system and what actually goes into breakfast cereals and how they’re made, I came to the conclusion that at best, they aren’t very nutritious, and at worst, they could be harmful. So I immediately stopped buying them, much to the distress of my children.

There are several issues with boxed breakfast cereals.

1) grains and sugar content

2) fortified with synthetic vitamins

3) GMOs

4) extrusion process

I’ll break it down for those of you who might not have spent hours researching the dubious nutritional benefits of boxed breakfast cereals.

Grains & Sugar

The jury is still out on how much grain we should consume, if at all, but I’m pretty sure that most of us eat too much of it. My kids take sandwiches to lunch almost every day, and at night we often have rice with our dinner. So I figure if I can get protein and even veggies into them at breakfast, rather than more grain, they will be better off for it.

And also? The sugar content in cereals is out the roof – even healthyish cereals are high in sugar, which is the last thing a child needs in the morning before going off to school.

If I AM going to serve a carbolicious breakfast, I would prefer it to be homemade waffles or french toast with homemade bread. Why not a bowl of cereal? Read on.

Fortified

I am highly skeptical of the habit the food industry has of fortifying denatured foods with synthetic vitamins and minerals. If there are no nutritional benefits there to begin with, then why bother? (I know, it’s quick and easy, and, well, people like it!) But think about it. Our bodies aren’t designed to assimilate synthetic vitamins, and we probably eliminate them as soon as we ingest them. (This is why I try to buy food-based vitamins, not synthetic ones.)

Plus, food that is otherwise dead and totally denatured and then fortified with vitamins and minerals give a false sense of security. You THINK you are getting the nutrients you need, when in fact, you are getting chemically enhanced junk.

PLUS ALSO. Your body needs fat to absorb vitamins, and what do most people put on their boxed cereal? Skim milk. At LEAST if you’re going to eat boxed cereal, put some whole milk on it. (You know I had to get a plug for whole milk in there somewhere!)

Basically, it comes back to this. You are much better off getting your nutrients from nature, as they come in whole foods. Your body will assimilate them better, and there are other benefits to real food beyond the nutrient content, like enzymes and good bacterias. Boxed cereal is a dead food. But feeding your body and brain with eggs and meat and vegetables at breakfast time will power your body and mind for most of the day.

GMOs

Unless your cereal is organic, it most likely contains genetically modified corn and soy ingredients. Even Kashi has had to admit that their cereals may contain GMOs. I’d just rather steer clear of that hot mess. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about when I say GMO, read this. I don’t know how reliable that site is, but the information explained pretty much sums up what I’ve learned from a variety of sources.)

Extrusion

Extrusion is the process by which they make cereal into those cute little shapes. Some say the extrusion process destroys nutrients and creates toxicity.

In his book Fighting the Food Giants, Paul Stitt has tells us that the extrusion process used for these cereals destroys most of the nutrients in the grains. It destroys the fatty acids; it even destroys the chemical vitamins that are added at the end. The amino acids are rendered very toxic by this process. The amino acid lysine, a crucial nutrient, is especially denatured by extrusion. This is how all the boxed cereals are made, even the ones sold in the health food stores. They are all made in the same way and mostly in the same factories. All dry cereals that come in boxes are extruded cereals.

In addition to all that, read this article, Puffed Grains and Breakfast Cereals, should we eat them? by Sally Fallon. Now, grain of salt. HAHAHA. No pun intended. Sally Fallon is brilliant but I like to balance her information with other sources. Still, I think this experiment is fascinating.

Researchers at Ann Arbor University were given 18 laboratory rats. They were divided into three groups: one group received corn flakes and water; a second group was given the cardboard box that the corn flakes came in and water; the control group received rat chow and water. The rats in the control group remained in good health throughout the experiment. The rats eating the box became lethargic and eventually died of malnutrition. But the rats receiving the corn flakes and water died before the rats that were eating the box! (The last corn flake rat died the day the first box rat died.) But before death, the corn flake rats developed schizophrenic behavior, threw fits, bit each other and finally went into convulsions. The startling conclusion of this study is that there was more nourishment in the box than there was in the corn flakes.

I don’t know why the results from this study weren’t published – perhaps there were issues with the validity. Or perhaps the company didn’t want the information out there and found a way to bury it. I don’t know. But if it’s anywhere near true, it certainly gives you pause! (I also want to know why a similar study hasn’t been conducted. How hard would that be? I’d do it myself if I weren’t so wigged out by rats.)

So there you have it.

My Conclusions

I am still pretty adamant about not buying breakfast cereals. It was an easy line for me to draw, I guess. But I have lamented about my Breakfast Woes, and sometimes I wonder if I am being too legalistic about the breakfast cereal issue. My kids actually beg for Kashi’s Heart to Heart. I KNOW. But as healthy as it might sound, Kashi is not organic, and they are rumored to use GMO ingredients. See #3 above. And it is probably also extruded (see #4), as that is the only way to make those adorable hearts. Plus it has high amounts of soy, and I’m pretty much anti-soy these days. But I digress.

My point in writing this post is not to cast judgement on those who choose to buy boxed cereals, nor is it to make anyone feel guilty or like less of a mom. PLEASE KNOW that I am so not where I want to be when it comes to my family’s eating habits. This is just one area that is do-able for me so I stick to it (for the most part.)

Since reading Real Food and Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, our eating habits have evolved. But only to a point.

I WANT to be one of those die-hard real food types who make everything from scratch, sprout grains, brew kombucha, and raise chickens; but I just am not that person. I’m a wanna be. We have had to prioritize our commitments because I have come to the conclusion that I do not want to devote the time and effort to living that lifestyle, even though I do believe it is optimal.

I am adamant about some things — making my own bread (for the most part, we have to pick up a loaf here and there when I have a busy week); buying locally grown and hormone free meats and eggs; buying raw milk raised locally without chemicals; using coconut oil, butter, lard or olive oil rather than vegetable oils; buying organic produce whenever possible… but there is a limit to the things I will do.

Notice, I say will and not can’t. We all CAN do it. But not all of us WILL (I know I won’t!) and I’m okay with that.

We have lots of boxed snackfoods in our cabinets, for instance. I usually buy organic to avoid GMOs and superfluous ingredients that I can’t pronounce, but they are still dead foods that we have on hand for convenience, not for their nutritional benefits.

Also? I confess that I run through the Chick-Fil-A drive through from time to time. I KNOW. Just keeping it real, yo.

There are plenty of other things I buy and eat that are not optimal. (Like, HELLO. Halloween candy much??) This is real life I’m living here, and it’s not always perfect.

So while I admit, the breakfast cereal thing is not a hill to die on, it is a line I’ve drawn for our household. If it’s a line you choose to draw as well, here are some better choices for breakfast.

homemade granola gluten free

Alternatives to Breakfast Cereal

Cheese Strata

 

 

Chocolate Banana Smoothie

Egg Nog

Gluten-Free Homemade Granola

Ham ‘n’ Cheese Egg Bake

 

Oatmeal Pancakes

Refrigerator Apple Bran Muffins

Sausage Scramble

Spinach, Bacon, Egg and Cheese Omelette

For all my recipes, check out my Recipe Index!

Also, Lydia has a great list of 40 Healthy Breakfast Ideas.

If you’re interested in knowing more about whole foods and how to eat a more traditional diet, you can also read what I jokingly call My Whole Foods Conversion Story, which is peppered with links to various posts I wrote along my journey.

Comments

  1. mary b says

    We have eliminated “most” cold cereals, but yeah have a few boxes of Kashi or Grain Berry now and then (with whole milk of course). My oldest laments the loss of the standard kid cereals, but he knows there is no going back.
    In the warmer months my guys are not too keen on hot oatmeal, but now that it is fall, they will eat that more. I need to keep up more with making their home made pancakes & stashing in the freezer so they have something quick to grab. Otherwise I do cook a lot of eggs…we raise chickens, so they are plentiful.
    I have made a few “egg muffin” recipes that are full of meat, veggies and cheese, which are great to grab & go.
    I guess for now I am still at the 80/20 as far as having a small amount of less than ideal choices.

    • says

      I need to try the egg muffins! You (or someone) has posted recipe links before and I haven’t tried it. I *think* my kids might like that. They are getting sick of eggs, unfortunately.

  2. says

    Thanks for the information. We have cut our cereal consumption way back, mainly because it doesn’t fill us up. I’ve never been a big cereal eater unless it is for a snack anyway. The kids eat cheerios for breakfast about once a week and sometimes we have fruit loops for a snack, but that is very rare. I suppose the baby eats more than the rest of us, just because it is an easy snack to take with us. And we have always used whole milk and always will, despite the frowns I get from the grandparents. ;) I just made waffles from scratch this morning, along with scrambled eggs. I think my kids probably still eat too much bread/carbs for breakfast, but they definitely always get protein so I’m not beating myself up about it.

  3. lee ann says

    I’ve started eating oatmeal for breakfast. I add cinnamon, chopped almonds, ground flax, honey, and milk and heat it up in the microwave. Then I add a sliced banana. It’s quick since I have limited time in the morning, and it fulls me up for awhile. I haven’t reached for a boxed cereal since reading your posts on it.

    • says

      My son used to eat oatmeal every day but he has tired of it. The others don’t care for it so much. Then I recently read that it may not even be that good for us. SIGH. Sometimes I wonder why I bother trying! LOL. Still, it has to be a big improvement over boxed cereals. I wish my son still ate it.

  4. says

    When I saw the title of this post in my reader I first thought you were making some sort of beef breakfast cereal. Apparently the coffee’s not doing it’s job very well this morning. Although I would be intrigued by beef breakfast cereal.
    I’ve been trying to get away from cereal. My girls like cereal and I have to admit it’s easy. I can’t imagine that it’s better than o’s with honey but we eat the gluten free panda and gorilla cereals. I’ve never actually looked at the sugar content, I probably don’t want to know. I’d love for them to eat eggs for breakfast but that doesn’t fly. My ideal would be to have on hand french toast that I can heat up for quick mornings. Anyway. It’s a journey.
    One of the reasons I really love your blog is that you’re not doing it all. It’s true, although we might love to be that person not all of us will be. Case in point, at ballet while my 5 year old snacked on her Halloween Skittles the conversation was about getting rid of HFCS and other non real foods from the diet. As I nodded in agreement I had to laugh at the irony.

  5. says

    I agree with many of the points you bring up and think there are several healthier alternatives. However (you knew that was coming….), I really don’t like that you included the ‘unpublished study.’ As someone who has gone through the rigors and gotten a scientific study published (back in my grad school days, you know, when I actually had coherent thoughts), the peer-review and getting published process is full of scrutiny, constructive criticism and revisions in order to get the most accurate and scientifically sound research out. Anyone can write an unpublished study – I could sit down right now and make something up and call it unpublished research. The fact that it wasn’t published tells me that a. it could be entirely false, b. the methods weren’t sound, c. the statistics weren’t sound, d, the conclusions weren’t sound.

    If the study was true, I can’t imagine why it hasn’t been replicated. It sounds easy enough to do.

    ps – I’m a kombucha brewer…would love you see you try it too!

  6. Denise ('DeNutritionist') says

    Hi Jo-Lynne,
    Just a quick clarification re vitamins, mostly because I don’t really agree that vitamin absorption is a valid argument for increasing fat consumption. Only 4 vitamins are, in fact, fat-soluble: A, D, E, & K. The rest are water-soluble, so whether or not they’re ingested with fat makes no difference. (There are better explanations, but just as a quick reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitamin — scroll down to ‘In Humans’)

    That said, I don’t eat boxed cereal myself, much less give it to my little boys. I’m sure at some point they’ll start asking for it, but just glad I don’t have to deal with that quite yet! ; )

  7. says

    I’ve never thought of cereal in that way before. However, I don’t really think of cereal as a source of nutrients. For example, when I was pregnant I read to not skip that breakfast cereal because of the folic acid. I did eat cereal (Fiber 1) every morning, but just because it made a fast breakfast before heading to work, not because of the synthetic vitamins. I suppose that I’m just justifying the reality by telling myself that I “only” eat a few cups of cereal a week (other mornings I eat steel-cut oatmeal or eggs.) Is there any truth in all things in moderation?

    • says

      I hope there is some truth in all things in moderation b/c I’ve been consuming an awful lot of Halloween candy this week! Heh.

      LIke I said, I am sure I’m a bit legalistic about the cereal, considering some of the other things I allow. I just find it easier to not buy it than to try to eat in moderation. Cause if it’s there, then they want it all the time.

      As far as not thinking of cereal as a source of nutrients – that brings up an interesting point, and I have a post in the works about how we view food. Food is intended to be primarily a source of nutrition, but in our modern age I think we’ve lost sight of that. Not that I don’t think we should enjoy it, but what’s the point of eating it if it isn’t nourishing us, really?

      Another topic for another time, I guess. :-)

    • says

      I started eating lots of cereal when I was pregnant and 3 years later I still gotta eat as soon as I wake up and cereal is easy to make and easy on my stomach.

  8. says

    I loved cereal growing up (heck I love it now, but stay away from it). My kids don’t really care for it. I’ve got two boxes in the pantry now that have probably been in there for six months. I need to just go ahead and throw them away. I have one that doesn’t want to eat breakfast at all (she gets that from her dad). She just hates eating in the morning and always has. And my little eats corn dogs for breakfast. I’m pretty sure that just made you gasp. ;) He loves them and eats one almost every single morning. He also likes eggs and bacon and sausage, but really doesn’t want a carb anywhere near him… in the morning.

  9. says

    This is amazing. I was just going to write how Kasha is not cereal in my last post – http://mybusychildren.com/our-fun-leapfrog-party/

    I hope you dont mind the quote from my article:

    My four-year-old, whose name is Masha found a girl named … yes, also Masha, who lives in Moscow, Russia. She then was even more excited to learn that Masha in Moscow also eats kasha for breakfast. Then the girl on the map proceeded to explain that Kasha is a type of cereal. I hope kids will interpret cereal here as “grain” as opposed to “breakfast cereal” since Kasha is a type of porridge, which is made from cooked grains and eaten hot (e.g. oatmeal, cream of wheat). Oh well, I digress here and should stop before I go in to the debate about advantages of hot cereals over cold cereals.

  10. Liz says

    I love your comment–breakfast cereal is not the hill to die on. But I’m with you. I no longer buy boxed cereal, and my kids no longer miss it. You have to draw a line somewhere, and breakfast cereal is one area where it’s fairly easy to draw that line (although I do miss my Cap’n Crunch–love that stuff). Having started the “whole food/real food” journey after my kids were old enough to protest, I’ve had to take small steps, too.

  11. says

    I love you.
    That’s all.

    Thank you for sharing your research with us. I have stopped buying cereal, and we usually have smoothies for breakfast. My oldest refuses to eat eggs, so a lot of the time we have (homemade) waffles or pancakes. We’re moving, but slowly :)

  12. DeAnn says

    Oh boy, every time I buy those stupid, expensive boxes I say, “This has to be the last time!” My kids are tired of eggs and aren’t crazy about oatmeal. Frankly, I buy cereal strictly for the convenient fact that my kids can make it themselves in the morning…and the older ones can make it for the younger ones. Sigh…

    I did have an idea that a couple of my friends are on board with…we just need to do it. I do freezer cooking with a friend of mine–for dinners. We buy in bulk and cook together and end up with about 30 entrees. I was discussing the process with another friend and we started talking about doing that for breakfast/snack foods. Taking a day to just make a bunch of healthy waffles, muffins, egg muffins, smoothies, granola, granola bars, etc. That way you can just pull some waffles out of the freezer to toast or thrown a granola bar in their lunches for snack. If you prepare it with one or two others you a) save money by buying in bulk and b) get to hang out with a friend(s) for a day while you do the drudgery of the preparation. Something to think about! :) Thanks for reminding me that I need to get on that and get off the General Mills train!!!

  13. says

    I’m withya completely.

    I first came upon many of the notions you write about when my son was a baby. I was making his food following the Super Baby Food Book, but was completely convicted and completely convinced when I read the ingredients on jarred food. Everything had been manufactured out of it and was left with gruel, which had to be colored, flavored and one or two vitamins added to. I distinctly remember picking up a jar of fruit and they hadn’t even bothered to put in vitamin C.

    I described it to Dave as “ground up cotton with a couple of drops of vitamins.”

  14. says

    I have givin up on giving up breakfast cereal because I love them. They are a quick easy breakfast that is also easy on my tummy. I get up between 5 and 6 am and the last thing I want to do is make breakfast. My girls eat much better than I do but at least I don’t buy the sugar laden, chemical added food coloring ceral and I put raw milk on my ceral. I am going to go through your list for better breakfast ideas but everytime I try to stop I just keep going back!

  15. says

    The timing of this post was perfect for me! I’ve been talking about cutting back our cereal stash for a while now because my youngest seems to be living off the stuff instead of what I want him to be eating. I’m glad he enjoys bran flakes more than the average 8 year old but I think it’s time to lay down the law around here. ;)

  16. Nichole says

    It is really hard for me to eat breakfast because I don’t like it. And now that I found out that I cannot eat gluten or egg whites it is super hard. I find myself skipping it all the time. Last year I tried doing “real food” and I was ok but after I found out about my allergies it has gotten really difficult for me. I am glad I found your website. I really need the help with meal planning. Thanks.

    • says

      That would be really REALLY hard. Can you eat egg yolks? Is there a way to safely separate them? Cause they are SUCH a great source of protein and B vitamins. My kids love eggnog for breakfast – with raw milk, cream, egg yolks, vanilla and maple syrup.

      Do you like granola? Udi’s makes gluten free granola that is tasty, or I make my own. Udi’s bread is egg and gluten free. It makes good toast. I often put peanut butter on it.

      Best of luck to you!

  17. Amiri Mizan says

    Miss Shane, I am surprised by your plug for cow’s milk. You do realize humans are the only mammals that nurse into maturity…and from the milk of a different mammal. Milk is totally unnecessary after we grow teeth. Calves get off it after a couple of months but we humans stay on it. And not from our own mothers, but from calves’ mothers. This is absurd.

    However, I respect your need to raise kids who won’t constantly be “odd man out,” by having a diet that is truly beneficial. I’m finding that my unintentional, but budding raw-food lifestyle causes increasing separation when dining out. Just can’t eat the food of the masses. I do as I please at home because I have that luxury by living alone.

    Thank you for this article, as I’m tired of eating yellow-box Cheerios and expensive, exclusive varieties of granola, anyway. There’s just nothing else to trust. And I’m questioning those. (How many energy crashes have I gone through eating corn flakes by all manufacturers.) I add unsweetened almond milk. You should advise people that they really have to abandon unquestioned conformity to the local grocery store. Tell them to seek organic fruit and vegetables. Eat proteins, healthy carbs, moderate quantities of grains and legumes, and drink lots of water. Beware also of so-called fruit juices. I had to give up my beloved Red Plum Nantucket Nectar. It tasted sooooo delicious. But alas, all that cane sugar is doing us in. I’ve always held out that by trying to avoid sugar, we’ll still consume too much by default.

    And I’m sorry, Lucky Charms is no treat. I mean, how? Can it rival a juicy a red grape in season or a chunk of fresh pineapple? We keep trying to compromise with common junk food like we’ve been issued a set of orders, and before we know it, we’ll be popping meds and then some more meds to counteract the first meds.

    Let us all learn and experience the wonder of honest, healthy eating. I realize I arrived here gradually (still in the journey) and I wouldn’t turn back. The food is just too delicious on this side. Get informed. I have NOT traded on taste, which lasts only as long as the meal, yet the greater benefit is that I FEEL much better, which lasts all day. And of course, keeping slim entering middle age (whatever that is).

  18. Seven says

    I understand cutting back, but no one has explained if one can make up for the nutrient loss in cereal by eating healthier choices like whole foods throughout the day.

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