We know things are upside down in the world when processed, nutrient deficient food and pills are given more priority in our society than whole, natural foods and lifestyle choices. I think one of the most common examples that is so accepted by many as a healthy option are boxed cereals. Yes, they are quick, and yes they now jumped on the whole grain bandwagon, but this is far from enough to warrant them a worthy place in the diet of those interested in optimal health. One particular boxed cereal that seems to stand out above most others in making people think they are eating a healthy food is Cheerios.
We have all seen them – the Cheerios commercials. Many, many health conscious consumers out there believe that this cereal is a solution to many of their problems or a healthy way to start their day. And not just them, but everyone in the family from babies to seniors. If we take the commercials at face value, not only will Cheerios help you with your cholesterol and heart disease risk, but apparently it can fix your relationship problems, and your kids too!
But let us take a step back and really examine what this cereal is really made of. I feel so called to do so, for when I talk or teach about optimal nutrition and I mention removing processed cereals, people exclaim that surely that does not include Cheerios.
When I ask why they would think so, the most common answers I get is that it has no sugar (false), that it is part of a high quality breakfast (false) and that it helps them stay healthy (also false). And so people think that somehow it, is an exception to the rule. Well my dear friends, it isn’t – and today we are going to dissect this cereal and find out what it really is all about. The following analysis is based on a Canadian package, US or international packages will vary slightly.
Front Package Claims
As soon as one looks at a box of Cheerios, it is hard to miss the lovely red heart that encases the cereal within it. Must be healthy for the heart, or maybe it will help you be more lovable, or find a date easier? Um, not so much…
In the top corner or across the top, there is the whole grain symbol.
In the bottom corner, and this is the most disturbing part, is a health check from the Heart & Stroke Foundation. Why is this disturbing, read on to find out. The good news about this, is for anyone who reads the fine print, the companies basically pay to have this approval done, so it is worthless for those who learn about how the system works. Sure, there are “criteria” that have to be met, but again if we go behind the scenes, we learn that the numbers can be conveniently met.
Depending on the marketing campaign, boxes will have various slogans like “Clinically proven to help reduce cholesterol“. This gets the average consumer convinced that this cereal must be healthy and is definitely a way to fight cholesterol. However, just a little research into how clinical studies are run, will quickly show that they can be made to conclude in favor of whatever product is being tested. In the end, remember one important health rule:
“Never believe anything on the front of the box.”
On one of the side panels, it states that 7 out of 10 Canadians report not getting enough whole grain. And I hate to break it to you, but I am not sure they are going to with this product either.
If you are eating this product to seriously help with your cholesterol, please know that you would have to live off of Cheerios to make that happen. It is more important what you eat the rest of the day, than a breakfast cereal which will never be your magic bullet.
So let us look on further at the main part that should always be read – the ingredients – at why some of these areas are problematic.
So let me ask… how many of you who eat Cheerios or claim that it is healthy, have actually read the ingredients on it?
Most of us don’t. We run into grocery stores, and run out with our usual choices, that have usually been conditioned on us from commercials or years past. We seldom stop to think what it is really that we are putting into our bodies, and even less often actually read the ingredients – the most important part of any product (food or personal care, etc.).
Here are the ingredients for the Cheerios (based on a Canadian label):
- Whole Grain Oat
- Corn Starch
- Sugar and/or golden sugar
- Trisodium phosphate
- Calcium carbonate
- Wheat starch
- Vitamins & Minerals: Niacinamide, Calcium pantothenate, pyridoxine hydrochloride, folate, iron
Okay, so what do these really mean to us where high quality nutrition is concerned?
For starters, I don’t know about you, but when I look at Cheerios, I do not see any whole grain oats. This is important because when the “whole grain” bandwagon started, people lost site of what “whole grain” really is supposed to be. Whole grains ground down to flour, do not offer you the same health benefits as whole grains period. Quick lesson from chemistry tells us that, the more we expose of a surface area of a product, the chemical reaction rate increases. What does this mean to you and I?
This means that the product acts more like an unhealthy simple sugar in your body, than a healthy complex carbohydrate.
The second ingredient is corn starch. Not only is this offering us little in terms of high quality nutrition, but there is a SUPER high chance that this is coming from genetically modified sources, as today corn is one of the top 3 genetically modified crops grown.
The third ingredient? Well wouldn’t you know it – sugar. Famous nutritionist/dietitian, Jeff Novick, teaches audiences world wide, to make a quality food, sugar and salt should not be in the top five ingredients. (Remember, ingredients are listed from most abundant in the food to least.)
This leads us to the fourth ingredient – salt. As you will notice below in the nutrition facts, Cheerios is not a healthy option for people at risk for cardiovascular problems.
I had a huge shock when I saw the next ingredient, trisodium phosphate (TSP), on the Cheerios list. So what is that? A common, strong cleaning compound.
According to Wikipedia, trisodium phosphate is a cleaning agent, food additive, stain remover and degreaser. And also according to Wikipedia, “It is generally considered to be a bad idea to ingest compounds that are sufficiently caustic to dissolve cell membranes.” You think? So what is this substance doing in your food?
In food, TSP is used as an acidity regulator (buffering agent), emulsifier, thickening agent, nutrition enlargement agent and sequestrant (metal-chelating agent). Although naturally according to the FDA, the TSP is GRAS (generally recognized as safe), I think common sense tells us chemicals like this should not be in our food period. It is one thing having adults eat this, but the common parent gives Cheerios with these chemicals, as a treat to their babies.
The calcium carbonate, is a common dietary source of calcium, which makes it sound fine, but more so it is used as a food preservative, color retainer, emulsifier, firming or bleaching agent.
Monoglycerides are single fatty acids attached to a glycerol molecule. Basically, they are modified fats, which are used to blend together certain ingredients, such as oil and water. According to VRG.org, the commercial source may be either animal (cow- or hog-derived) or vegetable, and they may be synthetically made as well.
There is not much to say about wheat starch, so we will skip on to the last ingredient – annatto. This is a color additive, and is generally considered to be a natural one. Despite this, it is known in many cases as a food allergen.
What I have come to observe, is that many people also think Cheerios are a healthy option because they are low in calories. However, the calories, should really not be our main concern unless we are on some strict diet.
The bigger issues to focus on are: is there any trans fat, saturated fat and sugar? How much? What is the sodium amount? If it is higher than the number of calories per serving, than it is a high sodium food, and should definitely not be eaten by someone with high blood pressure or at risk for it.
So here is what our nutrition facts say, per (1 cup) 27g serving*:
Calories = 110
Fat = 2 g
Saturated Fat = 0.4g
Trans Fat = 0g
Cholesterol = 0mg
Sodium = 250mg
Carbohydrate = 20g
Fiber = 2g
Sugar = 1g
Starch = 17g
Protein = 3g
Vitamin A = 0%
Vitamin C = 0%
Calcium = 4%
Iron = 30%
Niacin (B3) = 6%
Vitamin B6 = 8%
Folate = 8%
Pantothenate = 6%
Phosphorus = 10%
Magnesium = 15%
Zinc = 6%
*Based on Canadian package (US values may differ slightly)
The average person eats about 2 cups of this cereal per serving, and with milk. Automatically you are looking at about 300 or more, not 100 calories.
The sodium is more than double the calorie amount, meaning that it is not a heart and stroke healthy food.
The vitamin and mineral values are nice to see, but ultimately if you really want to know what good levels mean, it is much more complicated than looking at the daily value percentages.
Fibre is on the low side as well, compared to what real whole grains provide.
So what is the verdict? If you care about your heart and your health, it is time to get off the Cheerios bandwagon and start to look for some high quality nutrition, real food options. If you are concerned about your heart health, consider some real oatmeal and more importantly what your diet consists of the rest of the day. Other great breakfast alternatives to try if you want to start your morning with a healthy grain are Bob’s Red Mill cereals.
And maybe, maybe I can understand what all the hype and fuss was all about when it came to Cheerios if it at least tasted good – but it doesn’t. It is one of the most tasteless things to eat. So if it isn’t healthy and it doesn’t taste good – then really what is the point of eating it?
There is nothing real or wholesome about this food, and it is sad to call it healthy or rely on it to solve any of our health problems. If this is what healthy food means today, we are not headed in a good direction for the future.
In the end, the choice is always yours, but most importantly do not deceive yourself, or let others deceive you when it comes to healthy food choices. You have too much at stake for that, so choose wisely with your dollars and with your health.
As for me, I will continue to choose real whole grain food options, minus the chemicals.
Questions and Answers
I was doing research to see if Cheerios was safe for my 10 month-old daughter to eat when I came across your article. I was suspecting that it wasn’t although everyone in my family, including cousins with very young children, were insisting that it was fine. Your article was fantastic and so appreciated! I passed it on to my shocked cousins. I think I may have found a good alternative to give my daughter, as she loves to feed herself. I know that homemade food is best for my baby, but it would be nice to have a handy snack for her that’s safe. Can you comment on Barbara’s Honest O’s original flavor. The ingredients are as follows:
Organic whole wheat flour, Organic corn flour, Organic oat bran, Organic apple juice concentrate, Sea salt, Baking Soda
1 cup is 120 kcals , Fat 2g (0 trans or saturated fats), Cholesterol 0g, Sodium 80mg, Potassium 80g, Total Carbs 22g, Dietary Fiber 3g (Soluble 1g, Insoluble 2g), Sugar 1g, Protein 4g
Emilie - Jan 25, 2013
ANSWER: Barbara’s Honest O’s do seem like they are on the best track possible where processed food goes. The best part is that they are using organic ingredients like organic corn, which removes the GMO risks. And as long as the child does not have a gluten intolerance, the whole wheat should be fine. However I still don’t recommend lots of wheat food products for anyone, whether organic or not. It is not a big deal now if this is the only wheat food the child is eating, but it may be in the future if eating like most people, wheat in their breads, pastas, baked goods, etc.
So yes, as you so perfectly put, homemade is best, and as a baby continues to grow you can make wonderful treats in minutes with whole natural ingredients (just look into raw, vegan recipes online….you don’t have to be raw, or vegan, but the easy and whole food snacks that can be made in minutes are unbeatable) that maintain their nutritional integrity, but in the meantime if a convenient snack is needed, it sounds like you found one of the best packaged ones.