Cereal is a popular breakfast food that’s often fortified.
You may wonder whether fortified cereals are healthy, as many boast impressive health claims on their packaging.
This article takes an in-depth look at fortified cereals and their health effects.
Fortified foods contain added vitamins and minerals that aren’t naturally present in them.
Fortification is meant to improve people’s levels of particular nutrients and is common for foods that adults and children typically eat, such as grains, milk, and juice. Cereal is one of the most commonly fortified foods.
For example, 1 cup (40 grams) of fortified Total cereal boasts 40 mg of iron — 100% of the Daily Value (DV) (1).
As the same size serving of an unfortified wheat cereal meets only 10% of the DV, much of breakfast cereals’ iron content may be due to fortification (2).
It’s important to monitor your nutrient intake, as many people in the United States don’t consume enough iron, calcium, or vitamins A, C, D, and E. Deficiencies may lead to negative health effects (3).
Fortified cereals contain added vitamins and minerals to help improve nutrient intake.
Food manufacturers often fortify ready-to-eat, pre-packaged cereals — and sometimes hot cereals like oatmeal (6).
However, fortified cereals are not inherently healthy. While some are made with whole grains and high in fiber and protein, others contain almost no nutrients.
For example, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes offers no fiber and only 1 gram of protein per 3/4 cup (29 grams) (7).
You can tell if a cereal is fortified because the added nutrients will be specified on the packaging. Often, below the ingredient list, there’s a list of vitamins and minerals used to fortify the product.
Keep in mind that fortification varies by region. It’s more common to find fortified cereals in Western countries (8).
What’s more, certain countries, including the United States, Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, and South Africa, mandate the fortification of wheat flour with folic acid, so it’s more common to find folic-acid-enriched cereals in these places (9).
Notably, cereals that are less heavily processed are less likely to be fortified. For example, muesli usually consists of unfortified whole oats, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit.
Many packaged, ready-to-eat cereals are fortified. To determine whether your cereal is fortified, check the label for vitamins and minerals listed below the ingredients.
Eating fortified cereal may help prevent nutrient deficiencies.
A recent study noted that eating fortified foods boosted the intake of folate and vitamins A and C (12).
Fortifying cereal grains with folic acid — the synthetic form of folate — has successfully reduced the incidence of neural tube defects, which are one of the most common birth defects in North America (16).
Therefore, fortified cereal may benefit women who are or may become pregnant.
Fortified cereals may reduce your risk of nutrient deficiencies. Specifically, fortifying foods with folic acid has helped reduce the incidence of birth defects.
While fortification can enhance nutrient content, cereal is still a processed food and isn’t necessarily healthy.
Many fortified cereals are high in added sugar and refined carbs (6).
This means that a bowl or two of fortified cereal could easily put you close to — or even above — your daily sugar limit.
Not only do Americans tend to already exceed guidelines for sugar intake, but diets high in added sugars are also associated with an increased risk of chronic conditions like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes (9, 23).
Many manufacturers label their cereals with misleading health claims, such as “low-fat” or “whole-grain” (24).
This is deceptive because the primary ingredients are usually refined grains and sugar.
For example, Honey Nut Cheerios are marketed as helping lower cholesterol. Yet, a 1-cup (37-gram) serving contains 12 grams of sugar (25).
Such misleading claims may lead people to overeat foods that aren’t healthy. What’s more, many fortified cereals are marketed to children. Studies reveal that advertisements affect children’s taste preferences and may contribute to obesity risk (28).
As such, you should read labels carefully to avoid any deceptive claims.
Fortified cereals are generally not as healthy as their packaging asserts, as many are high in added sugar and refined carbs.
It’s best to choose cereals that are low in sugar and high in fiber. Look for types with fewer than 6 grams of sugar and at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.
Fiber can help boost fullness and reduce cholesterol levels, among other benefits (29).
Since many cereals lack protein, include a protein source to create a more satisfying, balanced meal. Consider adding Greek yogurt, nuts, or peanut butter.
However, the best option for a nutrient-rich breakfast is whole, unprocessed foods, such as oatmeal, yogurt, fruit, or eggs.
It’s best to select cereals that are low in sugar and high in fiber — or simply eat whole, unprocessed foods instead.
Fortified cereals are commonly eaten for breakfast and may help prevent certain nutrient deficiencies.
However, many have misleading claims and are loaded with sugar and refined carbs.
Fortification alone does not necessarily make cereal healthy. For a nutritious breakfast, you’re better off eating whole, unprocessed foods like eggs or oatmeal.
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