Why is it that for breakfast in America, we always need to start off with something sweet? Now, by no means am I bashing this trend in its entirety but take a trip down the breakfast aisle these days and it seems you might as well be in the dessert section. Frosted Mini Wheats, Pop Tarts, packaged muffins, fruit-centered cereal bars … oh my! Do any of these NOT contain loads of added sugar? The answer is no.
While there are many unhealthful options in the breakfast aisle, I am going to pick on Mr. Cereal. If there is one thing I think all Americans should eliminate from their diet completely, it’s cereal. I hear you gasping. Just let me explain.
Have you ever considered the origins of cereal? Take a trip down history lane with me and I will describe the invention of one cereal brand, Kellogg’s.
It was the late 1900’s. John Harvey Kellogg ran a popular sanitarium that promoted health and rejuvenation. He promoted healthy diet, exercise, and healthy bowel function (enemas were commonplace). While experimenting in the kitchen one day for healthier breakfast options, he “accidentally” left some cooked wheat on the counter for hours and it had gone stale. Being economical, and on a strict budget, they continued with the process and put it through rollers in an attempt to create dough. Instead they found it made flakes that they then toasted. The guests loved it. Voila! A new cereal was born. While this all sounds very virtuous, what with all this whole grain fiber and such, Kellogg’s younger brother Will saw dollar signs with this discovery (doesn’t this sound like a movie?). To improve upon the taste he decided to add sugar into the mix, a move that his brother was vehemently opposed to. The younger Kellogg wanted to go to market with his new sugary-laden creation and present it to the masses, but a court fight ensued between the brothers. In the end Will prevailed and the rest is history.
So while cereal started out as a relatively healthful food, it quickly turned sinister. The first concern, as you are keenly aware, is that the sugar content in most cereals is atrocious. Back in the day when sugary cereals were first coming on the market, some of them contained up to 50% sugar. Yes, 50%! Many of those have come down a bit, but overall there is still a lot of added sugar in most cereals.
You might argue, however, that some cereals are full of whole grains and very little sugar, just like Mr. Kellogg intended. True, in part. The problem is the processing. While Mr. Kellogg made his cereal by hand with very low heat, modern processes involve high heat extrusion that likely kills a lot of the beneficial properties of the wheat.
Sally Fallon, author of the book Nourishing Traditions, describes this process more fully in an article she wrote:
“Cold breakfast cereals are produced by a process called extrusion. Grains are mixed with water, processed into a slurry and placed in a machine called an extruder. The grains are forced out of a tiny hole at high temperature and pressure, which shapes them into little o’s or flakes or shreds. Individual grains passed through the extruder expand to produce puffed wheat, oats and rice. These products are then subjected to sprays that give a coating of oil and sugar to seal off the cereal from the ravages of milk and to give it crunch.
In his book Fighting the Food Giants, biochemist Paul Stitt describes the extrusion process, which treats the grains with very high heat and pressure, and notes that the processing destroys much of their nutrients. It denatures the fatty acids; it even destroys the synthetic vitamins that are added at the end of the process. The amino acid lysine, a crucial nutrient, is especially damaged by the extrusion process.” (http://www.westonaprice.org/modern-foods/dirty-secrets-of-the-food-processing-industry)
If this wasn’t enough, there is also the packaging. Many of the bags contain a chemical called Methyl Naphthalene in the waxy coating. While there are no known risks to the small amounts commonly used in cereal packaging, in 2010 Kelloggs had to recall several popular cereals because excess chemical was somehow added that made several kids and parents ill. Another ingredient in cereal packaging is Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) and Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA). These are used to prevent oxidation of the cereal, however the National Toxicology Program in 2005 deemed this chemical as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” Besides cereal, BHT and BHA are also found in petroleum products, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and some pesticides. Lovely.
So, while surely there are some cereals out there using more wholesome ingredients and avoiding many of the toxins used in processing and packaging, for me the question comes down to actual nutrition. Considering that even the organic and natural cereals are using many of the modern processing techniques (I highly doubt they are making this stuff by hand at low temperatures, for example), I question how nutritious even those choices are for you. Then when you consider the abundance of healthful, whole food options out there, where is the need for cereal besides convenience? I personally believe we should be steering our children away from cereal and opening their palates towards healthier options.
Believe me, I know the main complaint. But cereal is so EASY! The trick is getting into such a routine and habit with other foods that those things become easy and convenient too. How about quick cooking oatmeal? Whole grain toast? Scrambled eggs? Homemade pancakes or waffles (made ahead of time) that you just pop in the toaster? All of these are so much more nutritious and take only minutes more to prepare, especially if you plan ahead.
If you still aren’t ready to give up cereal, consider switching it up more often and rotating through different foods, or switch to the organic brands and tell Kellogg’s and the other major manufacturers that we don’t want sugar and chemical-laden products in the breakfast aisle anymore. It all comes down to consumer demand, and money talks.
Now, after saying all that, I will divulge a little about my own torrid history with cereal. Oh yes, I am a former cereal-holic myself.
I started young. My favorite? Lucky Charms, where you let those crunchy little marshmallows soak in the milk, impart their sugary color and flavor, and then drink the sweet liquid afterwards. SO good.
As with many kids who start on cereal young, it’s a habit you continue into adulthood. I ate cereal almost daily. As I grew wiser I switched to whole grain and then organic choices, however my breakfast options remained heavy on the cereal. Then I started to branch out as I read more and more that maybe cereal really wasn’t the most nutritious thing to be eating regularly. I started doing oatmeal, plain yogurt, toast, eggs, even smoothies once in awhile. As these new choices became more frequent, I noticed my dependence and even liking of cereal grew less and less.
It wasn’t until after I had kids of my own that I realized it had to go completely. When we first introduced some organic, colorful O’s cereal to my young son, I noticed he went completely crazy for the stuff. He would ask for seconds every time. He was never like this with other breakfast foods. It got to the point that all he would ask for was cereal. Even between meals. It took several months, but we have finally gotten to the point where he has forgotten about cereal. It is no longer an option. Sure, maybe he has some once in awhile at Grandma’s or at a friend’s house, but he knows at home it’s just not there. In lieu of cereal his new favorite breakfast food is toast lathered with almond butter and strawberry jam or half a bagel with a thick coating of cream cheese. He also loves daddy’s weekend bacon and my weekly batch of buckwheat waffles. I feel much better about these choices.
So that is basically the run down of why I think cereal, for the most part, should be a “never” food. If you can make your own cereal at home or you happen to find a small producer making quality stuff, then go for it. In general however, especially when it comes to the major manufacturers, the product is garbage and detrimental to your health. I advise choosing whole foods and resisting the temptation of convenience over quality. As with most things in life, quality takes time. Make time for your health.
*For more reading on the modern day processing and promotion of breakfast cereals, I recommend the book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” by Michael Moss.
Now it’s your turn. What is your favorite healthy breakfast? If I get a bunch of great ideas I will compile them into a list and send it out in my next newsletter. If you aren’t already a newsletter subscriber, be sure to sign up on my web site.