Food for Thought

Breakfast; as the word appears, you are “breaking the fast” from when you went to bed the night before. It really is the most important meal of the day as it gives your body and brain a wake-up call. Research has proven that children who eat breakfast perform better in school and cereal is one of the staples for this important meal. So what should you look for when selecting a cereal? The famous stars, athletes and characters on the box are usually fun, but you need to look beyond them and here’s how:

First, look at the Nutrition Facts label on the side or back of the package. This is where you’ll find the information like protein, fat, sugar, fiber and vitamin content. Look at the section which contains the words “Total Carbohydrate.” Under this heading is a line stating “sugars,” which tells you how much sugar is in one serving of your cereal. Below is an example from the cereal Apple Jacks.

Cereal (without milk)

One serving – 1 ounce (1 cup)

Calories per serving – 110

Dietary fiber – 11 grams

Sugars – 14 grams

Total carbohydrates- 25 grams

As you can see in the above example, one serving of Apple Jacks has 14 grams of sugar. What does this mean? How many teaspoons of sugar are in 14 grams?

It is important to know one fact: four grams of sugar equals one measuring teaspoon. To figure out the number of teaspoons of sugar in one serving of Apple Jacks, divide 14 grams by four. The answer is three and one-half teaspoons of sugar per serving.

That’s right; one serving of Apple Jacks has three and one-half teaspoons of sugar. That again is just for a one cup serving. Teenagers can and do eat two to three times that amount. That’s a lot of sugar to start off the day.

A simple rule of thumb to consider when buying breakfast cereals is that many nutritionists and dentists now recommend that you choose cereals that contain six grams or less of sugar per serving or less. Six grams equals one and one-half teaspoons of sugar per serving.

Second, look at the fiber content. You should try to select cereals that give you at least three grams per serving. Remember, the more the better in this case. Adding fruit, berries or nuts to your cereal is also a good way to add fiber.

Look for whole wheat and whole grain within the top three to four ingredients on the list. The ingredient list is written in descending order of predominance by weight, which means that the ingredient that weighs the most is listed first. So, finding whole wheat or whole grain in the top four of this listing indicates higher fiber content.

Third, look for cereals that are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Cereals are an excellent way to help your children get the vitamins, minerals and essential nutrition their bodies require in a tasty package, an especially good idea if you have a picky eater.

Fourth, serve your cereal with a one percent or skim milk if the cereal is for a child over two years of age. Children under age two need the essential fatty acids in whole milk for brain development. One percent and skim milk provide considerable nutritional value without the fat and high caloric value of two percent and whole milk.

Hectic school mornings can make eating breakfast a hassle, but nothing is easier than dry cereal with some added milk to get your body and brain going for a good day at school.

Susan Browning is a registered dietitian and coordinator of outreach programs at Susquehanna Health.