Nutrition

I Stopped Eating Cereal and Here’s Why…

A data-visual investigation into the health and nutrition of ready-to-eat breakfast cereals

How healthy are breakfast cereals?
They’re not.

Some interesting facts about cereals:

  • Breakfast cereals were invented in the 19th century as an answer to very unhealthy eating habits of the people of that time — and as bland food that will calm the passions, according to the Seventh-day Adventists who invented it.
  • Cheerios were first called “Cheerioats,” but Quaker Oats complained, so the name was changed in 1945. Marketing research data from IRI show that Honey Nut Cheerios continues to be the top-selling brand, with classic Cheerios landing in fourth place after Frosted Flakes and Honey Bunches of Oats.
  • Kellogg, General Mills, Post, and Quaker Oats are the four most known manufacturers of breakfast cereals. Battle Creek, Michigan, is considered the “Cereal Capital of the World” because it is the hometown of Kellogg and Post.
  • The most popular items sold in grocery stores are milk and carbonated beverages — then breakfast cereals. Half of Americans eat cereals for breakfast every day. On average, Americans eat 50 kg of cereal per person every year, or 160 bowls.
  • Kellogg’s Corn Flakes were eaten by astronauts aboard Apollo 11, which made the first landing on the moon. The cereal was mixed with fruit and pressed into cubes to make it easier to eat in zero gravity.
  • The cereal industry in the United States uses 2.4 million pounds of sugar daily!

Source: Fun and Interesting Facts about Cereals, History of Cereals

Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

Who doesn’t have a favorite cereal?!

Mine was Cheerios!

Imagine this scenario: You wake up, well after snoozing the alarm at least three times. You are in a hurry and need a quick bite. You just want to reach work on time. So, you go over to the kitchen cabinet, pick your favorite cereal, pour it into a bowl, add some milk into it, maybe some fruit, maybe some nuts. And breakfast is done. Nothing like your favorite cereal to get you started for the day.

Sound familiar?

However, it was also true that the cereal breakfast used to never be enough for me. I used to end up eating something else after a while, or worse, drinking unhealthy amounts of coffee. After this happened for a couple of months, I decided to change my eating habits and explore other breakfast options.

That was when I discovered that cereals aren’t really healthy and their nutritional values aren’t really beneficial.

A fun interpretation of breakfast expectations versus reality

Why do we still eat cereal then? First off, a cereal breakfast is quick and easy; it saves time. Second, you can customize your cereal with honey, fruits, or nuts, and it tastes good.

But I believe that an important reason why you buy breakfast cereals every time you go grocery shopping is that you are convinced that cereals are good for you.

Truth be told, food manufacturing companies and specifically the cereal industries invested heavily in marketing to convince the world that you couldn’t ask for a healthier start to your day. According to an Atlantic article titled “Why Cereal Has Such Aggressive Marketing,”

“ Before the invention of cereal, breakfast was not as standard or routine as it is now…The rise of cereal established breakfast as a meal with distinct foods and created the model of processed, ready-to-eat breakfast that still largely reigns. And it all depended on advertising that suggests that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”

History of the cereal industry…

Before we dive into the facts and figures, let’s take a look at the history of ready-to-eat breakfast cereals and how the cereal industry came to be.

Image depicting history and timeline of breakfast cereals
An illustration of history and timeline of the cereal industry, as described in A Short History of Cereal, The New York Times

So how are cereals made?

On a high level, these are the steps involved in manufacturing cereals are:

  1. Processing — The grains are cleaned and processed into fine flour.
  2. Mixing — The partial grains are mixed with flavoring agents, vitamins, minerals, sweeteners, salt, and water.
  3. Extrusion — Many breakfast cereals are produced via extrusion, a high-temperature process that uses a machine to shape the cereal.
  4. Drying — The cereal is dried over a conveyor belt that passes through the oven.
  5. Shaping — Finally, the cereal is shaped into forms, such as balls, stars, loops or rectangles. They may also be puffed, flaked, or shredded or coated in chocolate or frosting before it is dried.

Source: Cereal, How products are made

Over the course of the manufacturing process, the whole grains in the cereal no longer remain whole. Cereals are loaded with refined grains, sugar, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, and other ingredients that aren’t healthy for our bodies.

Let’s get real and discuss the numbers.

In a test conducted by Consumer Reports, people were asked to show how much cereal they typically eat. People were surprised by how small the serving size listed on the box really is.

In fact, 92 percent exceeded the recommended serving size. On average, people consumed twice as much cereal as the serving size.

You don’t have to eat the recommended amount of cereal, but you do need to be aware of how much you typically serve yourself.

It is recommended that breakfast should consist of multiple components amounting to no more than 400 calories, to maximize nutrient consumption and to ensure that you’re satisfied until lunchtime. (Source: This is what your breakfast, lunch and dinner calories actually look like, Global News)

Consider the nutrition values for a 375-calorie breakfast for a woman between the ages of 19 and 30. Below is an infographic that illustrates the comparison in nutritional values for an ideal breakfast vs. a cereal with milk breakfast.

(The ideal breakfast values are calculated from the USDA report and cereal values from the average serving size of popular cereals.)

This comparison makes two things evident:

  • Cereals don’t give you sufficient nutrition and energy that your body really needs.
  • Cereals contain an excessive and unnecessary amount of carbohydrates and sugar.

In the above infographic, the most out of proportion nutrient is sugar, and by that, I mean the added sugars in cereal.

These cereals are packaged and marketed as “healthy,” which hides the fact that they contain a LOT of added sugars. The added sugars don’t provide the same benefits as the natural sugars found in fruits do.

Here’s an illustration that shows sugar per serving for popular breakfast cereals. One Froot Loop denotes one gram of sugar per serving of cereal.

Did you spot your favorite cereal in the above illustration? And, do you know how much cereal do you typically eat? Then try and calculate your sugar consumption from the above data.

AHA recommends that the daily intake of added sugars must be limited to 25 grams for women and 36 grams for men.

(Source: Added Sugars, American Heart Association)

Compare your cereal sugar consumption to the daily limit. Understand that cereal constitutes only a single meal and you have more meals left for the rest of the day.

The conclusion is pretty obvious.

Remove ready-to-eat breakfast cereals from your diet.

If you absolutely must have cereal, remember these things:

  • Shop for ones that are high in fiber, and extremely low in sugar content.
  • Reduce your weekly cereal consumption.
  • Get into the habit of measuring your cereal quantity. Stick to the recommended serving size.
  • Supplement a cereal breakfast with other foods for a wholesome meal.

So what makes for a good breakfast?

Well, people have varied dietary restrictions and food preferences. So there is no single answer.

A good guideline to remember is to consume food that is a result of healthy manufacturing processes and provides well-rounded nutrition.

Opt for real food.

Photo by Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash

Cook or prepare something that satiates you, without a feeling of guilt.

Start your day with something that energizes and refreshes you, gets you excited for the day ahead.

And trust me when I say this, it’s neither cereal nor coffee.

Ruta Gokhale is a UX designer and likes to tell stories through the medium of data visualization.

User Experience and Information Designer. Understanding design and its many facets. (www.rutagokhale.com)