How to Choose the Healthiest Breakfast Cereal

Por Matthew Kadey, R.D. |

Not all cereals are created equal. A registered dietitian explains what to buy to pour into your bowl for an easy, nutritious breakfast.

bowl of healthy cereal for a story on how to choose healthy breakfast cereals

Eating a satisfying and nourishing meal in the morning sets you up for a healthy day. And many of us prefer to spoon into a bowl of cereal for breakfast because it's a quick, filling and delicious choice. So much so, that nearly 300 million Americans eat cereal each day.

A healthy box of cereal can help older adults meet their overall nutritional needs. Unfortunately, many of the eye-catching packages in the cereal aisle are low in nutrition and big on sugar and additives - more of a sweet treat in disguise than a well-balanced meal.

If you know what to look for, there are plenty of healthy cereals you can enjoy daily without sacrificing taste. It's just a matter of scanning the package labels - and not just the ones with the health promises on the front of the box.

Here’s what to know before heading to the grocery store, plus some of the smartest choices you’ll find on the shelf once you get there.

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Tip #1: Scan for Cereals Made With Whole Grains

Whole grains supply a healthy foundation for cereals, and they should be listed on the nutrition label as an ingredient near the top of the list. Ingredients on packaged foods like cereals are required to be listed in order of amount from the largest to smallest. It doesn’t matter if you prefer whole wheat or whole grain oats, unless you have gluten intolerance.

Compared to the refined grains used in many boxed cereals, whole grains are higher in fiber, protein and important nutrients like magnesium and selenium. Magnesium helps regulate muscle and nerve function, and selenium helps protect against cell damage and infections.

Processed grains lose much of their nutritional value during the milling process. And just because the front of the box says "multigrain," "cracked wheat" or "100% wheat" doesn't guarantee that the bulk of the grains used in the product are whole.

Recommended reading: What Are Ultra-Processed Foods — And Should You Avoid Them?

Tip #2: Be Mindful of Sugar

Packaged cereals can contain a surprisingly high amount of added sugar. Sure, it’s easy to steer clear of the boxes with cartoon characters on them to avoid the sweet stuff. But those aren’t the only ones that are problematic. Cereals with the words “crunch,” “clusters,” “fruity” or “vanilla” in the product description are also tip-offs that you might be getting too much sugar.

You don't need to steer clear of sugar entirely, but you should look for cereals where the amount of added sugar is listed as 5 grams or less. Don't get fooled by ingredients like dextrose, sucrose, maltose and fruit juice concentrate. These are just euphemisms for sugar.

Tip #3: Make Friends With Fiber

Breakfast cereal is a good way to work more fiber into your diet, which helps maintain bowel health and can lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels. It also helps your breakfast feel more filling. But most of us aren’t getting enough of it.

One recent report found that fewer than 10% of American adults are meeting the National Academy of Medicine's suggested daily fiber consumption, which is 14g of fiber per 1,000 calories. Ideally, you're aiming to find a cereal you enjoy eating that supplies at least 5 grams of fiber per serving.

Tip #4: Keep Excess Sodium Out of Your Bowl

Salt in cereal? You bet — and there could be more in there than you think. Most older people already eat more sodium than they need, and it can contribute to high blood pressure. So it’s a good idea to make sure your cereal isn’t working against you. Go with the boxes that cap sodium at 200 mg or less in a serving.

Tip #5: Choose Cereals With Simple Ingredients

Sometimes less is more. Scan the ingredient list and see if there are too many words there that you have no idea what they mean. Words and phrases like "butylated hydroxytoluene," "modified food starch" and "artificial flavors" could mean you are eating a heavily processed cereal with questionable ingredients. Try to find cereals with a more wholesome ingredient list.

6 Top Cereal Picks, According to a Registered Dietitian

If you forgot your reading glasses when you went to the store, here are six cereals that you can spot and feel good about eating for breakfast. (Items available at major supermarkets and specialty grocery stores in the U.S. You can also order most items online.)

1. Alpen No Sugar Added Muesli

Per serving (2/3 cup): 210 calories, 3.5 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 43 g carbs, 7 g fiber, 0 g added sugar, 8 g protein, 20 mg sodium (

This Swiss-style muesli keeps things simple with its humble but nutritious ingredient list: whole-grain oats, whole-grain wheat, raisins, almonds and hazelnuts. It also tastes great served on yogurt with fresh berries.

2. Bob’s Red Mill Protein Oats

Per serving (2/3 cup): 190 calories, 4g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 32 g carbs, 5 g fiber, 0 g added sugar, 10 g protein, 0 mg sodium (

This product is made with a newly cultivated form of oats that are higher in protein, yet they taste just like the oatmeal you remember. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a higher intake of plant proteins can prevent chronic disease and improve mental functioning.

There are no other ingredients added to these oats, which is a plus. But if you're looking for a little extra flavor, top your bowl off with cinnamon or fresh fruit.

3. Uncle Sam Original Wheat Berry Flakes

Per serving (3/4 cup): 220 calories, 6 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 43 g carbs, 10 g fiber, 0 g added sugar, 8 g protein, 140 mg sodium (Uncle Sam at

Beyond praising this cereal because of its lofty fiber count, minimal ingredient list, very low sugar count and budget-friendly price, it also has heart-benefiting omega-3 fatty acids from added flaxseeds.

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4. Nature’s Path Organic Flax Plus Mulitbran Flakes

Per serving (1 cup): 150 calories, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 31 g carbs, 7 g fiber, 5 g added sugar, 5 g protein, 180 mg sodium (Nature’s Path at

The combination of wheat bran and oat bran gives this calorie-conscious organic cereal considerable amounts of fiber. Flax also provides some beneficial omega-3 fats, and there are no artificial ingredients. It has great crunch, too.

5. Barbara’s Shredded Wheat Cereal

Per serving (2 biscuits): 170 calories, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 41 g carbs, 7 g fiber, 0 g added sugar, 6 g protein, 0 mg sodium (

This squeaky-clean cereal contains just a single ingredient: whole-grain wheat. And that one ingredient can have a positive impact on your gut microbiome, which is the colony of healthy bacteria in your gut that helps control your immune system.

When people consume the equivalent of two biscuits a day (48 grams) of this whole grain cereal for three weeks, the number of beneficial microorganisms in their gut increased, according to the British Journal of Nutrition. The whole wheat likely acts as a prebiotic, which essentially serves as a fuel source for the microorganisms in our digestive tract.

6. Cascadian Farm Organic No Added Sugar Cinnamon Apple Granola

Per serving (2/3 cup): 290 calories, 14 g fat, 3.5 g saturated fat, 37 g carbs, 5 g fiber, 0 g added sugar, 5 g protein, 160 mg sodium (

Most granola on the market has high amounts of added sugar. So it's great to find an option with no extra sugar - dried dates and apples provide all the sweetness this cereal needs. You can also sprinkle it over cottage cheese and top it with fresh fruit. Just be sure to keep an eye on your serving size to make sure you don't go overboard on calories.

See our sources:
Breakfast cereal consumption: Statista
Magnesium: National Institutes of Health
Selenium: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Daily fiber consumption: British Journal of Nutrition
Protein and cognitive health: The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Wheat and the microbiome: British Journal of Nutrition

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