Served hot or cold, cereals can be a healthful, low-calorie breakfast main
dish. Many also make popular snacks and can be used as ingredients in meat
loaf, muffins, and cookies. Since ancient times oatmeal and other cooked
cereal porridges have been valued as much for their economy and ease of
preparation as for their nutrition.
The first ready-to-eat cold cereals in North America were developed as
health foods by the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek,
Michigan, founded by the seventh-Day Adventists in 1866. The Adventists were
seeking a vegetarian alternative to the traditional cooked breakfast of ham
or bacon and eggs. It took another 30 years, however, for cold cereals to
gain much of a following. In 1899 Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the medical
director of the Battle Creek Sanitarium (a health institute that specialized
in the treatment of digestive diseases), and his brother Will invented a
wheat-flake cereal to improve bowel function. A few years later they
developed another cereal made of cornflakes. Adding to these developments,
one of Dr. Kellogg's barley mixture that he called Grape Nut Flakes. Food
companies founded by the Kellogg brothers and Post remain North America's
leading producers of cold cereals, with dozens of different brands.
Although prepared cereals are gaining popularity in Europe and other parts
of the world, they are generally considered a North American product with
one notable exception – the granola-type mixture of oats, wheat flakes,
nuts, and dried fruits invented by Dr Max Bircher Benner, a Swiss pioneer of
the natural health food movement in Europe. Variations of his muesli, which
is served either hot or cold, are now popular in North America, as well as
in most European countries.
Wheat, corn, rice, oats, and barley are the most familiar grains used to
make cereals. Most flaked cereals are varying combinations of flour, water,
sugar, and salt that are mixed into a dough, rolled thin, and then toasted.
Some cereal preparations are spun into different shapes, such as tiny
doughnuts or cartoon characters; in others, the grains are shredded or
are one of the most popular members of the complex carbohydrate, or starch,
food group. More than 90 percent of all commercial cereals are enriched or
fortified with various vitamins and minerals, especially iron, niacin,
thiamine, vitamin B6, and folic acid. Regulations about adding nutrients to
cereals differ in the United States and Canada. In Canada enrichment is
limited to a few nutrients whereas some American cereals can mimic vitamin
pills. Unfortunately though, many of the cereals that hype their vitamin and
mineral content are loaded with sugar. Better to eat an unsweetened cereal
and take a vitamin pill.
Some cereals have added dried fruits and nuts – but usually not enough to
justify their higher cost. An economical and healthful approach is to buy
plain cereal and add your own fresh fruits, raisins, seeds, nuts, or other
ingredients. The granola-type cereals are often high in fat from added oils;
many commercial cereals are also high in salt. It's best to make your own.
if you use store-bought granola cereal, look for a low-fat brand.
Oat cereals are high in soluble fiber that helps lower blood cholesterol
levels, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease. Some cereals, especially
those made from whole grains or with added bran, are high in insoluble fiber
as well. These help prevent constipation and may also reduce the risk of
some cancers, including colon cancer. Whole-grain cereals rich in fiber are
a convenient way to add more fiber to your diet. Look for a cereal that
contains at least 3 g of fiber per serving. Just don't add too much bran to
your diet all at once; it can cause bloating, abdominal discomfort, and
intestinal gas and flatulence.
Most cereals are relatively low in calories, but this varies considerably,
depending on the ingredients and how they are served. Serving whole milk can
more than double the calorie content of many cereals. Using skim or
1-percent-fat milk saves calories and, for older children and adults, it is
much healthier than whole milk. When you are comparing the calorie content
of cereals, pay attention to serving sizes given on the package's nutrition
label; some cereals are low in calories only when consumed in very small
Kids' cereals in particular are often extremely high in sugar. In fact,
sugar may top the ingredients on the nutrition table, which means that the
product has more sugar than anything else. Check the nutrition tables on
other cereals to find a product that offers more fiber and less sugar.