Breakfast cereal is considered “health food.”  How healthy is it, really? And should we be giving it to our kids?

Servings of popular brands such as All Bran, Oat Krunchies and Golden Grahams contain four times as much salt as a 25g bag of roasted peanuts and large amount of artificially added vitamins and minerals.
Most breakfast cereals are made as a result of  grain extrusion and refinement. During these processes, most of the bran and some of the germ of the grain is removed, resulting in the loss of dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, lignans, phytoestrogens, phenolic compounds, and phytic acid. Most amino acids, especially lysine, also get damaged by the extrusion process. Processed and refined grain products are often high in sugar, salt and artificial flavorings. The extrusion process destroys most of the naturally occurring nutrients in the grains. It destroys the natural fatty acids and the vitamins, which are added in an artificial form at the end.

Benefits of whole grain consumption include reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes. Whole grains in their intact state give better protection against chronic diseases than any of their component nutrients used as supplements. People who eat whole grains  have a lower risk of obesity, as measured by their body mass index and waist-to-hip ratios. According to the USDA, people who eat three daily servings of whole grains have been shown to reduce their risk of heart disease by 25-36%, stroke by 37%, Type 1 diabetes by 21-27%, digestive system cancers by 21-43% and hormone-related cancers by 10-40%.  USDA’s 2005 dietary guidelines recommend that all adults eat at least three servings of whole grains each day, or at least 48 gram of whole grains. Active teenage boys need 5-10 servings of whole grains.
One of the additional benefits of eating whole grains is that they slow down the digestive process, thereby allowing better nutrient absorption.  A study found whole grain eaters to have significantly better nutrient profiles than non-consumers, including higher intakes of vitamins and minerals and lower intakes of total fat, saturated fat and added sugars as percentages of food energy.
So why are the typical grain products, sold today so heavily processed?
One of the main reasons for grain processing today is increasing its taste and nutritional value. Milling grains with a roller mill or grinder to reduce particle size is the simplest approach, which has been used for years to enhance digestibility. Today, the main commercial grain processing method is extrusion, which involves forcing the grain material to flow under various controlled conditions, along the length of a barrel. The conditions can involve puffing, drying and heating. Water, colorings and flavorings can be added to the product as it passes through the barrel, on its way to becoming a breakfast cereal, crackers or other types of whole grain snacks. In the final part of the barrel, the dough is forced through the die to form the desired shape. Then the grain material is heated and cooked. After the cooking section, the product passes through the cooling section. The basic materials used in grain extrusion process are starches, flour, colorants, liquid sweeteners, malt syrup and heat-stable vitamins and minerals. Soy-based components are also sometimes added to the extruded grain product.
Whole grains have a low glycemic index rating. Therefore, they are converted into blood glucose slowly, not causing sudden rises and later, sudden falls, in blood glucose levels. Refined carbohydrates, however, especially white flour products, typically have high glycemic index values, which are associated with blood glucose problems and insulin disorders. Processed flour is obtained by removing the brown husk of the grain, leaving the white, refined starch. The body breaks these refined starches down into sugar, which is immediately absorbed by the bloodstream. This can cause a dangerous spike in glucose levels, potentially causing constantly elevated blood sugar levels and even diabetes. Most refined grains are enriched. Some refined grain products are required by law to be fortified with folate, as well as thiamin (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), and iron,  beacause as a result of the refining process, they become deficient in those vitamins and minerals. Bran is frequently added to refined grain products to increase the dietary fiber content, which would have naturally been there, had the grain not been processed.
Perhaps it’s time to see breakfast cereals for what they really are: processed food. Maybe it’s time to let Cheerio’s go to rest and make a yummy healthy bowl of oatmeal tomorrow morning?