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The guide to kids’ cereal

We’re told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and the evidence seems to support this. Andy Kenworthy checks out some of the options we’re putting in front of our children.

Let’s get serious about our morning meal. According to a 2005 study from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that summarised 47 different pieces of research, children who consistently eat breakfast have better overall nutrition than their breakfast-skipping peers. They consume more daily calories, yet are less likely to be overweight, and have improved cognitive function related to memory, test scores and school attendance.

Yet early morning can be when we, and our children, are most attracted to something sugary and sweet that will ‘get us going’ – some days, it seems like that’s all kids will eat. In recent years the food industry has launched ever-more-decadent offerings, especially in products aimed at children; the nutritional reality is often obscured behind reassuring claims on the packaging. Sodium (described as the ‘baddie’ in salt) is also added to many cereals during processing. It seems mad – how many of us would sprinkle salt on our Weet-Bix? 

There are ways to track down the best cereals for your children’s breakfast. Here, we explain what to watch for and suggest a few healthier options.

Brainy breakfasts 

Foods that are high in sugar and low in fibre and protein are likely to give your child an instant hit, followed by an energy slump. For kids to be able to concentrate and have sustained energy throughout the morning, they need a combination of food that will help their brain’s biochemical messengers, or neurotransmitters.

Two types of proteins in breakfast foods can have a major impact on neurotransmitters. They are tyrosine, an amino acid that stimulates dopamine and norepinephrine (the transmitters responsible for alertness), and the protein tryptophan, which helps to relax the brain, allowing concentration. 

The ideal breakfast for children balances both types of proteins by including a mix of protein-rich foods and complex carbohydrates. Potentially, a bowl of whole-grain cereals or nuts with milk or yoghurt can provide exactly that. “For the best start to the day, choose a healthy breakfast that preferably contains whole grains, dairy foods and a serving of fruit,” says Sarah Peck, a dietitian at Mission Nutrition, Ponsonby. “This ensures there is a balance of healthy carbohydrates and protein to ensure sustained energy and concentration for a busy day ahead, as well as vitamins and minerals that are vital for growth and development. A good example is choosing a whole-grain breakfast cereal topped with yoghurt or milk and sliced banana. Adding fruit to cereal can add sweetness without having to add sugar.”

The lows and the highs

Some cereals claim to be low-salt or low-sugar – check the levels of the other bad guy in case it has been increased to compensate. Similarly, if a food is advertised with ‘no added cane sugar’, check for other sugars. They can hide under names such as glucose, dextrose, fructose, galactose and monosaccharides, but should all be included in the overall sugar content in the nutritional information. 

Even if the packet says ‘no added sugar’, it may be that high sugar content can be achieved through dried fruit alone. Folks eating gluten-free need to be especially aware of this; quite a few gluten-free products are very high in sugar, presumably for texture and taste. 

What’s in a label? 

Consumer NZ, which has done much of the latest research into cereals, is calling for ‘traffic light’-style labelling to be added to the front of packaging for many kinds of foods, including cereals, to indicate their overall nutritional value. A rival ‘five-star’ system is currently being trialled in Australia, and research has recently been done to assess how New Zealanders would accept such a system. In the meantime, your best bet is to take a close look at the ingredients list and nutritional information to see what’s really inside. 

How much is a ‘single serve’?

The ‘servings’ mentioned on the side of the pack are set at 30g. Because of the different densities of cereal, and how filling they might be, you might easily be eating double that. The only way to be really sure is to weigh out your portion. 

Whole-y grains, Batman!

Whole grains are cereal grains that have not been milled to remove the cereal germ that germinates the grain and the bran (the outer shell). According to a 2000 study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, considerable scientific evidence suggests whole grains reduce the risk of chronic disease, including cancer and heart disease. Whole grains also provide a wide range of nutrients and other chemicals that work together to improve your health.

Tutti frutti 

Dried fruits such as raisins and sultanas add flavour, fibre and some additional nutritional value, but they also increase the sugar content of your cereal. It’s worth noting that some packaged dried fruits are preserved using sodium sulphite or the gas sulphur dioxide, which can trigger attacks in some asthma sufferers. Sulphur dioxide has also been linked to cancer in various studies, but these relate to air pollution rather than its use as a preservative, where any residues are considered to be far less significant.  

Try it fortified? 

The fortification process adds vitamins and minerals to the cereal, either by selective breeding of source crops to promote particular elements or by adding them during processing. But this doesn’t mean the product is healthy overall – you still need to check the nutritional information to be sure of that. 

Cereal offenders

When it comes to deciding what goes into the breakfast bowl, we credit Good readers with the intelligence to take a look at the back of the pack and to make a judgement call relative to their children’s overall diet and level of physical activity. Check where sugar appears in the list of ingredients; the colourful ‘fun treat’ Fruit Loops don’t include any fruit but contain almost 40 percent sugar. Pretty much any cereal with ‘honey’ in the title will tend to be high in sugar; dried fruit increases sugar levels but also adds dietary fibre, plus other vitamins and minerals.    

Budget breakfast bombshells

Be wary of store-brand rice pops and cornflakes. You might think it isn’t possible to do much to foods as simple as these, especially on a budget. But Countdown adds sugar and a lot of salt – around 600mg per 100g, as does Kellogg’s. Pams Cornflakes includes 680mg of sodium per 100g and the Rice Snaps are even worse, at 780mg per 100g of cereal. Sanitarium’s Ricies have 690mg per 100g. Hubbards’ new cornflakes are little better at 600mg. A couple of large bowls of some of these and you will have consumed nearly half of an adult’s recommended daily salt intake before
you’ve even tied your shoelaces. 

Muesli munching

It turns out that outrageously sugary and salty cereal is not just for kids; many of us may simply be hiding our morning sugar rush behind the title ‘muesli’. In fact, those reassuring images of farmers’ produce may obscure sugar levels as high as the kids’ frosted cocoa sludge. As always, it pays to read the labels.

Vogel’s Crunchy Honey Clusters

Deliciously crunchy and sweetened with honey, these are snack-from-the-box yum. But just in case the reassuring concept of muesli and Vogel’s’ wholesome reputation blinds us, the nutritional information lets us know it contains more than a quarter sugar. 

Pure Delish Original Chunky Fruit & Nut Muesli 

If you include the fruit, this one is also nearly a quarter sugar. With 25.9g of fat per 100g, a couple of large helpings could take you up to about a quarter of the recommended daily total for a full-grown adult. 

Granpa BB’s Premium Toasted Muesli 

This online-only offering packs very low sodium (79mg per 100g) but is more than a quarter sugar, at 27.4g per 100g. However, this does include a serious (and tasty) dose of dried fruit. Admirably, the company also clearly labels the use of sulphites for those who may need to know. At 21g of fat per 100g, 4g of which is saturated, this is an ideal breakfast for physically active days.

Freedom Foods Tropic O’s

Described by the company as a “healthy treat that kids will love”, and highlighting the use of ‘natural’ ingredients, these might become the port in the storm for those wanting to avoid cocoa and honey. But they are nearly a quarter sugar.

Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain

It’s got nutri, for nutrition, in the title, plus grains – and it’s marketed as ‘Iron Man Food’ to appeal to sporty types because of its relatively high protein content. But it is just under a third sugar at 32g, and fairly high in salt, which suggests it may not be the breakfast of champions after all.     

Hubbards’ new range of kids’ cereals

It seems that for some companies, old habits die hard. Hubbards’ new cornflakes may be salty, but they at least manage to keep the sugar down to 6.7 percent, provided you can stop your kids putting more on. Banana Bugs’n’Mud may be admirably low in sodium, but are just under 30 percent sugar, as are Cookies & Cream Rumbles. Despite the scary name, Neapolitan Sugar Pops are actually better than these previous two, being just under a quarter sugar. 

Ceres Organics Bircher Original Muesli 

Less than one-tenth sugar and with very low salt. Brookfarm Gluten-Free Bircher is similarly pure, but is twice the price. 

Hillary Foods Cereal & Nuggets

This packs a good hit of protein and has just under 15 percent sugar, remarkably even for the Banana Honey flavour. A portion of the proceeds goes towards two of Sir Ed’s favourite causes, the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre in New Zealand and the Himalayan Trust. 

Hubbards Berry Tricks Mix

If your kids really need colourful stuff in the morning, this keeps the sugar content to 19 percent, some of which comes from fruit. It also contains only 230mg of sodium per 100g and meets all Consumer NZ’s criteria for a nutritious child’s breakfast. 

Harraways Oats 

As you’ve probably guessed by now, one of the best options is to keep breakfast simple with raw or toasted oats – adding nuts and seeds, yoghurt and fresh or dried fruit for taste. Harraways runs New Zealand’s only locally owned and operated oat mill, and sources its oats from Otago and Southland – places that are ideally suited to growing oats.  

An easy way to up nutritional content and lower salt and sugar ratios is to mix your family’s favourite colourful and tasty packaged cereals with plain oats. Or use Harraways’ three muesli bases as the start of your own customised mix. A useful rule of thumb is that if your breakfast looks like a dessert, at least make sure it looks like a healthy one. 

Kellogg’s Sultana Bran Buds 

Although these are a quarter sugar, some of it comes from sultanas. Low in salt and fat, this cereal contains a little more than 15g fibre per 100g – so it’s a pretty good option. For less sugar and more protein, go for classic Kellogg’s Sultana Bran.

Cec’s Homestyle Mueslis

This range of four gluten-free mueslis offers two flavours which contain no fruit. But even the fruit-rich Autumn Harvest blend has only 18g of sugar per 100g. Its relatively high fat content comes from the fact it’s full of nuts and seeds, but it does mean that a little goes a long way.

Sanitarium Weet-Bix

Don’t overlook this Kiwi icon in favour of flashier alternatives. It’s relatively low in salt, at just 285mg per 100g, and also in the clear on sugar, with less than three percent. It provides a good hit of energy and fibre to keep young folk on the go for the day. 

What to look for 

Consumer NZ recommends that for every 100g of your chosen cereal, ideally you should get:

• more than 5g of fibre (no more than 15g for children, otherwise they feel full before being able to take in the optimum amount of nutrients)

• less than 15g of sugar (25g, or a quarter, is acceptable if some sugar comes from fruit)

• less than 5g total fat (10g is acceptable if saturated fat is less than 2g)

• less than 400mg of sodium (salt)

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