Cereals & cereal bars Better granolas, cheaper flakes
Is Tony the Tiger worth his stripes? Maybe not. For about half the price, you can buy a Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes knockoff that’s almost as grrreat.
Our tests showed that the same is true for imitators of General Mills Cheerios and Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats. See Store brands (available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers) for details of our taste-off of famous brands vs. private labels.
If those top-selling cereals aren’t your bag, check out the results of our taste tests of 16 granolas and six cereal bars, both of which are selling like, well, hotcakes. But buyer beware: Some have lots of fat and sugar. Our test results will guide you to more healthful, tastier, best-priced choices from among a wide range of cereals. Here’s what we found:
What’s in your bowl?
More and more often, your grains come with claims. Many ready-to-eat cereals are touted as low in fat, sugar, or calories or said to include whole grain. (For a primer on that term and others related to wheat, see Whole grain types, available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers.) It makes sense to pour those products into your bowl.
In a recent survey by the marketing research firm HealthFocus International, consumers ranked “whole grain” as second in importance on a food label only to “fresh.” That may mean they’re paying attention to the research: Studies have shown that whole grains can help control weight by leaving you feeling fuller. They also can be rich in vitamins and minerals, and may protect against heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Government dietary guidelines recommend eating 6 ounces of grains per day (in a diet of 2,000 calories per day), of which at least half should be whole grains.
Consuming fewer calories, less fat, and less sugar are worthy goals for many people, but choosing the right cereal to achieve them isn’t always easy. Granolas are widely seen as healthful, but they’re often packed with calories from sugar and fat, so you should eat them sparingly, says Lola O’Rourke, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, the nation’s largest group of food and nutrition professionals.
Most granolas we tasted have at least 200 calories per 55-gram serving, with up to 13 grams of fat (mostly unsaturated) from nuts and added oils. But several have 3 grams or less per serving. Choose one of those, or sprinkle a higher-fat granola on low-fat yogurt or fruit.
Cereal bars have fewer calories than granolas per serving, but a serving is one bar, which is a meager breakfast. If you eat two bars, you might consume more calories than you would by eating a serving of the highest-calorie granolas.
Consumers seem to have mixed feelings about sugar in cereal. Overall, sales for nongranola cereals that are very high in sugar dropped slightly between 2000 and 2005, according to Mintel International Group Limited, a market-research firm. But with a few exceptions, sales of the lowest-sugar cereals fell even more. What’s up? Sales of medium-sugar cereals, which have risen 3 percent.
In addition to health claims, cereal eaters are seeing more products with dried strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and bananas. (We tested a range of those products, and all fruits were identifiable; some even had a hint of freshness.)
Also in your cereal bowl: a chunk of change. Although cereal is still a relative bargain and is found in more than half of American homes, the price of many boxes is nearly $4.
How to choose
The best way to choose any cereal is to read the label and focus on serving size, calories, fiber, fat, sugar, and the presence of whole grain. You’ll also need a product you enjoy eating, of course. Our taste-test results can help with that. Specifically:
If you want a granola or cereal bar, choose a lower-fat one, and check the sugar. Some granolas and cereal bars are low in fat but high in sugar, often from raisins. Even sweet cereals, eaten with low-fat milk, can be better for you than pastry, but lower-sugar, whole-grain cereals are your best bet. You can add fresh fruit for sweetness.
Look for whole grains. A product high in whole grains will list them as the first ingredient.
Consider fiber. If you need more fiber in your diet, as many Americans do, consider buying a cereal that has at least 5 grams per serving. A “good” source of fiber, according to the government, has 2.5 to 5 grams per serving.
Consider price. Don’t assume that lower cost means poorer quality.
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