Breakfast Cereals – To Eat or Not to Eat

Written by Cyndi

Cyndi is about educating. Her greatest love is to teach, both in the public arena and within the large corporate food companies, to enable everyone to make better choices so they too can enjoy greater health throughout their lives. Considered one of the world's foremost experts in Nutrition, Cyndi brings over 40 years experience, research and knowledge.

November 11, 2014

I’m always a little wary when I see an industry body funding a meta analysis of the scientific literature or providing funds for a research project on the food they make their money from.

Recently, the Australian Breakfast Cereal Manufacturers Forum, who are made up of Carmans, Freedom Foods, Nestle, Kellogg and Sanitarium and who hold an 80% share of the breakfast cereal market in Australia funded the following paper, The Benefits of Breakfast Cereal Consumption: A systematic Review of the evidence Base.

The review was done by a lone Australian author Professor Peter Williams. And I quote him: “Regular consumption of breakfast cereals can help ensure an adequate nutrient intake and may assist in reducing the risk of being overweight or developing cardiovascular disease or diabetes.”

The operative words are ‘can’ and ‘may’. Now I understand these words are playing it safe as there are no guarantees, but what perplexed me by the study is that there were 5,316 studies found using search criteria in the literature but only 232 of these papers were reviewed.  That made me suspicious as to whether the author cherry picked (just a little) the papers for review.  True, some of the papers may not have been relevant but of all the papers, less then 5% were reviewed.

While I must admit I have not read the whole study and I haven’t checked out all the references, I got the gist of it very quickly.

There is a statement that is bantered around in science at the moment; “Association does not mean causation”.  What that means is that just because there are more shark attacks, as ice cream sales increase does not mean that the increase in ice cream sales causes the sharks to attack. But when a highly qualified professor reviews the literature and for the majority of the claims finds associations as markers for better overhaul health as a result of eating breakfast cereals, you have to question the validity of the review study funded by cereal makers.

Dr Steve Myers, Head of Education at Changing Habits had this to say about the study.  Unlike me, he read the whole study -“I had a look at the Williams paper. He writes a pretty convincing article based on the evidence that cereal has health benefits. However, these are observational studies and what is needed as quoted by Williams, ” Most studies on the nutritional impact are cross-sectional, with very few intervention studies” are clinical studies which would be almost impossible to do as you would need to take into account heterogeneity, lifestyle, diet etc. Time would also be a major factor, how long would you need to do a study like this? Also, if you look at the saturated fat story….. since the 50’s, studies have portrayed saturated fat as the cause of heart disease (based on observational studies). We now know that there is no evidence that this is the case. Also, we still don’t know enough about refined grains/sugars and their impact on health. Obviously real foods would be better than refined foods that contain preservatives etc.”

Thanks Steve for your insight.

The Study concluded that people who eat breakfast cereal regularly:

•    have a better diet overall, with better nutrient intakes
•    tend to be slimmer
•    enjoy enhanced wellbeing and less health risks
•    benefit from improved mental and physical performance.

Putting the study aside, let’s look at what we know about breakfast cereals. The Australian Breakfast Cereal Manufacturers Forum believes the following about breakfast cereals:

•    they are nutrient dense – breakfast cereals give you a large amount of the essential nutrients you need each day in a modest number of kilojoules
•    are mostly low in fat
•    are based on all sorts of wholesome grains – oats, rice, corn, wheat, barley, buckwheat, sorghum, to name a few
•    can be good sources of fibre and wholegrains
•    can be good sources of vitamins and minerals such as folate, B vitamins, Vitamin C, Iron, zinc and magnesium.

Most cereals are usually fortified with nutrients including: folic acid, B vitamins, Vitamin C, Iron, zinc and magnesium.  On the surface, this may look like a good thing, but folic acid may not be functional and active in the body as it is the synthetic form of folate.  Vitamin C has been isolated and is usually made from a wheat based sugar – glucose, iron is easily extracted from the breakfast cereal using a magnet, so we know that this is not a plant based mineral, zinc is the form of zinc oxide which is used as a major component in sunscreens and the B vitamins probably have their origins from the petrochemical industry or have a genetically modified fermentation process.

Most additives are tested on animals for their safety.  As far as I know, only single additives are tested. Combinations of additives are yet to be tested and we don’t know the ramifications of a concoction of additives.  Buyer beware.

Breakfast cereals vary greatly. Some have more ingredients/chemicals, some have less but the theme is that this food is a highly refined food that cannot possibly be called healthy.  It is a junk food on the same realm as most packaged, highly refined foods on our supermarket shelves.  It has been positioned as a health food through clever marketing and advertising and now clever science manipulation.

Below is a overview of ingredients and Nutrition information panel link for the Nutri-Grain Cereal, as well as an ingredient breakdown for the Nutri-Grain Cereal Bar.

Without even considering the study but analyzing the ingredients, I’m sure it is plain to see that breakfast cereals are not a food that promotes health.

Nutri-Grain Cereal – Overview and breakdown of ingredients (and we would assume that this is the food that the cereal makers believe are a marker for health).

Cereals (44%)(wheat flour, oatmeal, maize flour), sugar, wheat gluten, molasses, salt, minerals (calcium carbonate, iron), barley malt extract, mineral salt (sodium bicarbonate), natural colour (paprika, turmeric), vitamins (vitamin C, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, folate). Contains gluten containing cereals. May contain traces of peanuts and/or tree nuts.

Cereals (44%) (wheat flour, oatmeal, maize flour)
The cereals are made up of wheat flour and maize flour, these are not whole grains as well as oatmeal, once again not a whole grain.  These foods at one stage may have been whole grains but they have been refined and we are not even told if the wheat flour is white or wholemeal. Plus the wheat is no doubt the new hybridized wheat triticum aestivum which has it’s own set of health problems and issues.

Here come all the sugars including; sugar, glucose, wheat gluten, glucose solids, fructose, dextrose, that would be 5 different sugars in a row.  The sugar would be a white sugar which means it is 99.4% sucrose and .6% ash. In other words, not a scrap of nutrient. Glucose, glucose solids, fructose and dextrose are probably corn or wheat based sugars and highly refined without any nutrient profile and if it is corn based, it could be genetically modified BT cone.  I’m not actually sure why wheat gluten is added but it is.

Molasses – another sugar and possibly the presence of canola oil, as most Australian sugar refineries use canola oil to extract the molasses.

Salt – refined with only two minerals, possibly anticaking agents and bleaches.

Barley malt extract – this isn’t even the whole grain, but rather an extract of barley.

Mineral salt (sodium bicarbonate) – we all know what that is.

Natural colours (paprika, turmeric) – so ok, I’m happy about paprika and turmeric. Let’s hope they haven’t been irradiated.

Nutri-Grain Cereal click here for Nutrition Information Panel 

Nutri-Grain Cereal BarOverview and breakdown of ingredients

Cereals (31%)(wheat flour, oatmeal, maize flour), choc compound (20%)(sugar, vegetable fat, milk solids, cocoa powder, emulsifiers [soy lecithin, 476, 492], flavour, salt), sugar, glucose, wheat gluten, glucose solids, fructose, dextrose, humectants (glycerol, sorbitol), vegetable oils (hydrogenated soyabean oil [antioxidant (320)], hydrogenated palm oil), molasses, salt, barley malt extract, mineral salt (sodium bicarbonate), natural colours (caramel III, paprika, turmeric), flavour, emulsifier (soy lecithin), rosemary extract, vitamin (vitamin E [soy]).

Let’s take the ingredients one by one:

Cereals (31%) (wheat flour, oatmeal, maize flour)
The cereals are made up of wheat flour and maize flour, these are not whole grains as well as oatmeal, once again not a whole grain.  These foods at one stage may have been whole grains but they have been refined and we are not even told if the wheat flour is white or wholemeal.  Plus the wheat is no doubt the new hybridized wheat triticum aestivum which has it’s own set of health problems and issues.

Choc compound (20%)(sugar, vegetable fat, milk solids, cocoa powder, emulsifiers [soy lecithin, 476, 492], flavour, salt)

The greatest ingredient is sugar, a refined food made up of 99.4% sucrose and .6% ash – not a nutrient in sight.

Next is the generic term vegetable fat. We are not told where the fat is coming from…it may be soy, canola or cotton seed.  It may be genetically modified and the fact that it says fat and not oil makes me believe that it has been hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, which means there could be the presence of trans fats.

Milk solids are a by product of cheese production and are usually something that has been dried with the help of canola oil and soya lecithin or maltodextrose but not always. However, not all the information has been given to me so I’ll assume the worst.

There are three emulsifiers including soy lecithin (probably genetically modified), 476 Polyglycerol esters of interesterified ricinoleic acid and 492 Sorbitan tristearate – these just add to the human chemical load which is already stretched beyond healthy.

Flavour is the big one – behind the word flavor can be a mix of 48 chemicals, including diactyls and solvents.

Salt – this is probably refined and will have anticaking agents and perhaps some bleaching agents. I can’t imagine them using Himalayan salt.

Here come all the sugars including; sugar, glucose, wheat gluten, glucose solids, fructose, dextrose, that would be 5 different sugars in a row.   The sugar would be a white sugar which means it is 99.4% sucrose and .6% ash. In other words, not a scrap of nutrient. Glucose, glucose solids, fructose and dextrose are probably corn or wheat based sugars and highly refined without any nutrient profile and if it is corn based, it could be genetically modified BT cone.  I’m not actually sure why wheat gluten is added but it is.

Vegetable oils (hydrogenated soyabean oil [antioxidant (320)]

The vegetable oil is self explanatory it is soybean, probably genetically modified and the oil has been hydrogenated therefore, it has been artificially saturated and there may be some trans fats present.

Molasses – another sugar and possibly the presence of canola oil, as most Australian sugar refineries use canola oil to extract the molasses.

Salt – refined with only two minerals, possibly anticaking agents and bleaches.

Barley malt extract – this isn’t even the whole grain, but rather an extract of barley.

Mineral salt (sodium bicarbonate) – we all know what that is.

Natural colours (caramel III (150c), paprika, turmeric) – so ok, I’m happy about paprika and turmeric. Let’s hope they haven’t been irradiated.

Flavour – another flavour possibly with the 48 chemicals behind the name including diactyls and solvents

Emulsifier (soy lecithin) – could be genetically modified, we are not told.

Rosemary extract – I don’t know enough about this product yet to comment, but of late I’ve seen it in many cereals and other packaged foods.  It was first known as a preservative but it is being changed to an antioxidant.

Vitamin (vitamin E [soy]) – the vitamin E is made from the soy bean oil, once again this is possibly genetically modified.

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