It’s probably not terribly surprising that cereal is a leading breakfast option; it’s easy (your kids can even help themselves!), fast, and tasty. According to a survey conducted for a shopping rewards app, close to 100% of people are picking up cereal every time they go grocery shopping—and some are buying two or three boxes. However, almost half are choosing sweetened cereals, which also tracks with sales data showing that Honey Nut Cheerios (which has more than two teaspoons of added sugar per ¾ cup portion) is the top-selling cereal. So what’s a cereal-lover to do? Here are some tricks and tips to help you buy the best whole grain cereals that also keep added sugars in check.
Lead with whole grains
When you’re looking at an ingredient list, the ingredients are written in order of predominance so when you’re shopping for the best whole grain cereal, a whole grain (such as brown rice, oats, whole grain corn, or whole wheat) should be the first ingredient. The healthiest options are 100% whole grain, but if that’s a deal-breaker, then the next best thing is to choose one that’s has more whole grains than refined ones. By the way, if you see the words “enriched wheat flour” or “wheat flour,” understand that these are phrases that mean white flour (which is a refined processed food), so you’re better off finding a whole grain option instead. (Refined flour is one of the worst processed foods to eat.)
Look at fiber levels
Whole grains vary in the amount of fiber they supply, and some, like brown rice, are lower than others, like whole wheat, so this isn’t the end-all-be-all, but you do want to take a look at how much fiber your favorite whole grain cereal has.
3 grams is a good source of fiber
5 grams is an excellent source of fiber
If you’re choosing a whole grain cereal with less fiber, you can boost the fiber content by adding some fruit and nuts or seeds. Here’s the fiber amount for various cereal toppings so you can see how they add up:
1 cup of strawberries has 3 grams of fiber
1 chopped apple has 4 grams of fiber
1 medium banana has 3 grams of fiber
1 oz of chopped almonds has 4 grams of fiber
1 oz of pumpkin seeds has 2 grams of fiber
1 oz of sunflower seeds has 3 grams of fiber
Adding these types of mix-ins to your cereal will also make your cereal bowl more nutritious and filling. (Check out this article with seven ideas to make cereal more filling.)
Limit added sugars
When you’re looking at a food label on your box of whole grain cereal, check the added sugar levels. You’ll see this number listed just below the total sugars under the carbohydrate line. Since cereal is a leading source of added sugar in our diets, go as low as you can here. The best whole grain cereals have less than 6 grams of added sugar. That’s about 1 ½ teaspoons. If your current favorite cereal has more than this, try mixing half the sugary cereal with half of a healthy whole grain cereal. Ultimately, strive to reduce this ratio until your mix contains mostly the cereal with no sugar—or until you’re only using the healthier cereal. Another option for sugary cereal lovers: Have it for dessert! As far as desserts go, you could do way worse! (Head here to get a list of 12 healthy sweet snacks to satisfy your sugar cravings. Or check out the best ways to reduce sugar cravings.)
Watch out for these ingredients
In general, I think it’s a good idea to limit or avoid artificial colors, sweeteners, flavors, and preservatives (like BHT, which may be used to line cereal bags). I also suggest limiting heavily processed forms of soy, such as soy protein concentrate or isolate, which you might see in higher protein cereals. This is a cheap form of soy and I have a couple of issues with it. Healthwise, the jury is still out on whether this is a safe form of soy. And environmentally, these forms of soy are processed with an environmental toxin called hexane. It’s an air pollutant and on top of that, workers exposed to high levels of these chemicals are at much greater risk for nerve damage, neurological disease, and vision impairments. Plus, there isn’t much information about how hexane residues on everyday foods might impact human health. This isn’t meant to scare you! If you’re eating foods with these soy ingredients every so often, I wouldn’t worry about it. But if you’re eating them regularly—whether in whole grain cereals, protein bars, protein shakes, or plant-based meats, I’d consider swapping them for soy-free versions.
One more thing before we move on: To be clear, whole food forms of soy, such as edamame, tofu, and even soy milk, are fine as long as you aren’t allergic and they don’t trigger any food sensitivities. (If you like a protein-packed breakfast, check out these high-protein breakfast ideas.)
The best whole grain cereals
This is a short list of some of the healthiest hot and cold whole grain cereals along with some key considerations. I hope you find something new to add to your shopping list!
Sprouting grains makes them easier to digest and make some of their nutrients more available and absorbable to your body. Unlike traditional corn flakes, this version supplies 33 grams of whole grains and 3 grams of fiber per serving. Even if you aren’t eating this by the bowl, it’s a great coating for fish and chicken.
This cinnamon oat cereal is lightly sweetened with 6 grams of added sugar. (It’s lower in sugar than most of Kashi’s other offerings.) I appreciate that it has 5 grams of fiber.
With 6 grams of fiber and less than one gram of added sugar, this whole grain cereal is definitely one of the best and healthiest. It also has 8 grams of plant-based protein, partially from organic sprouted soybeans (not soy concentrates).
Don’t tell my boy this only has 5 grams of added sugar—he thinks it’s more heavily sweetened than it is. It’s made with a mix of gluten free whole grains, has 3 grams of fiber, and is just as tasty as a crunchy yogurt topping as it is by the fistful or in a bowl of milk.
If you’re looking for something more mainstream, one of the best whole grain cereals is lightely sweetened Kix. Like all General Mills’ cereals, it features a whole grain as the first ingredient so it has more whole grains than sugar or refined grains. It’s a good source of fiber, with 3 grams, had has a reasonable 4 grams of added sugar. And a serving is bigger than many others in this roundup; it’s 1 ½ cups.
If you’re into muesli, this version has no added sugar and a hearty 7 grams of fiber. While some whole grain cereals feature fruit coated in added sugar, this one skips that unnecessary treatment. And the ingredients are simple and include two types of nuts, which bring 8 grams of protein to your breakfast before you add milk.
You can’t really beat good ‘ole Quaker Oats in the oatmeal department! It’s obviously great hot, and just as delicious served cold as overnight oats. Oats have a good deal of soluble fiber, which, along with other healthy dietary strategies, may help reduce your cholesterol levels. And if you aren’t a fan of a bowl of oatmeal, consider that you can also blend oats into flour for pancakes, muffins, and snack bites.
Granola lovers, you may not realize how much added sugar is in your favorite blend. This brand, and in particular, this variety, has less sugar than most other options. Just be aware of portions here—a serving is 1/3 cup. Needless to saying, eating more will raise the added sugar levels. In case you’re wondering, I prefer this granola to KIND’s version, which includes soy protein isolate crisps to bump up the protein.
If you want a grain-free muesli option, this one gets my thumbs up. It uses ingredients, like coconut, cinnamon, vanilla extract, and dried fruit to add sweetness without any added sugar.
Try swapping these O’s for your favorite oat-based cereal. They’re made from a blend of pulses and brown rice so they have 6 grams of plant-based protein and 5 grams of fiber, but they don’t contain a speck of added sugar.
This is one of the best whole grain cereals since it’s ingredient list is a mere mix of seven 100% whole grains, including wheat, rye, and barley, plus sesame seeds. That totals up to 39 grams of whole grains per 1 ½ cup servings and with 4 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein from plants, it’s a satisfying way to start the day.
Want to geek out on the science with me? References are below.
 https://www.bakeryandsnacks.com/Article/2019/03/05/96-of-US-consumers-buy-cereal-every-time-they-shop-survey-reveals  https://www.statista.com/statistics/188737/top-ready-to-eat-cereal-brands-in-the-united-states/#:~:text=General%20Mills%20Honey%20Nut%20Cheerios,in%20sales%20in%20that%20year.