You probably know by experience that standing in front of rows of cereal boxes trying to choose the healthiest one can be a daunting task. You may also have heard or read that people who eat a healthy cereal for breakfast consume more calcium, more fiber and less fat and that it can normalize blood glucose, a very important factor for everyone, but especially for diabetics.

So, how can you tell what a healthy cereal is? Well, by looking at four ingredients: whole grains, sugar, sodium (salt) and fat. Let us look at them.
A healthy cereal has to be a whole grain cereal

Buying whole grain cereals is of the utmost importance when it comes to our health. Why? Because whole grain cereals have all their edible parts. Thus, they provide us a good amount of the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and healthy oils that our body needs. Let’s review the parts a whole grain is made of:

A kernel of grain has four parts: the outer covering or husk (non fit to eat), the bran, the endosperm and the germ. A flour or meal is called “whole grain” when the last three parts are present after milling. The three parts of a whole grain — the bran, endosperm, and germ — each contain different nutrients.

1. Bran. A kind of skin that protects the seed or kernel. It has fiber, antioxidants, and many vitamins. It makes up 14 per cent of the kernel. The layers of bran around the endosperm are rich in fiber and contain between 50 to 80 per cent of the minerals.

2. Germ. The lower part of the grain. This is the part that sprouts into a new plant. It makes up about 3% of the kernel. The germ contains oils, vitamins and minerals such as vitamin E, vitamin B6, magnesium, manganese, zinc, potassium, copper, selenium, folate, insoluble fiber, and many more.

3. Endosperm. The largest portion of the seed. It contains starch, protein, and small amounts of vitamin B. It makes up 83 percent of the kernel.

How Can You Tell if It Is Whole Grain?

To make sure you are buying a whole grain cereal, read the food label carefully. The first ingredient should have the word “whole”, such as “whole wheat”, “whole oats”, “whole rye flour”, “whole barley”, and so on. Cereal labels often say 100 percent whole grain. However, be aware of cereals containing the wording “Made with whole grains”. It leads the consumer to believe that this is a whole-grain cereal but its main ingredient could be refined flour with just a small amount of whole wheat added.

The Whole Grains Council has created a packaging symbol called the “whole grain stamp”. The symbol looks like a stamp and represents the levels of whole grains in the food.

1. Good Source: Foods with this stamp have at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving. Do not buy cereals with less than 5 grams of fiber per portion.

2. Excellent Source: Foods with this stamp contain 16 grams of whole grain per serving.

3. 100% Excellent Source: It means all the grains contained in the food are whole grain.

So, if the food label only says “wheat flour” or “oat flour” does it mean the grains are not whole? That’s correct. And when we eat products indicating “wheat flour” or “oat flour”, it means that many of the vitamins, minerals, and oils are gone along with the parts of the grain that were removed.

Enriched versus not Enriched

You may have noticed on the package of certain cereals the word ENRICHED. What does it mean? It means that some of the vitamins (not all of them) and iron lost in the refining process are replaced in the “enriched” flours. However, the fiber taken out in the milling process is not put back in.

The Sugar Component

Paying attention to the sugar content of the cereal is another must before buying it. Why? Because it is not rare to see cereals on the market shelves that have over 10 grams of sugar per portion. Get into the habit of looking at the ingredient list. If you see that sugar, modified cornstarch, corn syrup, and dextrose are list first, it means that sugar is the most abundant ingredient. A cereal where sugar is the first, second, or third ingredient is not a good choice for any body, especially for people with diabetes.

Choose cereals that have no more than 2 – 3 grams of sugar per portion, although 0 grams will be perfect. When buying cereals keep in mind the “5 and 5” rule: less than 5 grams of sugar and at least 5 grams of fiber per portion.

How to Identify Sugar in Packaged Foods

Sugar appears in packaged food products disguised as honey, corn syrup, corn starch, molasses, fructose, glucose, dextrose, lactose, maltose, galactose, sucrose, laevulose, beet sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, isomalt, maltodextrin, maple sugar, maple syrup, and sorghum.

Salt (Sodium)

Most cereals are low in sodium, but you never know. Don’t take chances here either, especially if you are sensitive to sodium or have high blood pressure. Unfortunately we don’t have a way to tell in advance who is sensitive to sodium so prevention is a good measure. 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving is considered “low sodium” on nutrition labels. Choose cereals with 140 or less mgs. 35 mgs or less is considered “very low sodium”.


Although most cereals are low in fat, again, you may be due for a surprise here too. Certain granola cereals could have up to 9 grams of fat per serving. Choose a cereal with a maximum of 3 grams of fat per serving.

Final Thoughts on How to Choose a Healthy Cereal

Low sugar, whole grains, low sodium and low fat is what defines healthy cereals. Whole grains have been also the base of the Mediterranean diet, a diet that because of its nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber, has served Mediterraneans well for many centuries.

Have a healthy day,

Emilia Klapp, BS, RD.

Author's Bio: 

Emilia Klapp is a Registered Dietitian dedicated to counsel and teach patients who have diabetes type 2, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and are overweight. To read more of her articles and to receive a list of the calories and sodium content in meals at major fast food restaurants visit her at