The “healthiness” of cereals and foods is often relative. Same goes for Cheerios.
For example, if you are regularly skipping breakfast and then grabbing a bagel and cream cheese at the office, a bowl of Cheerios with skim milk would be a much better option from a nutrition standpoint than your usual choices in the morning. So from that perspective, Cheerios are a healthy cereal — or at least healthier in comparison to the bagel and cream cheese.
On the other hand, given the choice between eating Cheerios or a whole food, unprocessed source of complex carbohydrates in the morning like oatmeal, oat bran or homemade muesli, the Cheerios doesn’t fare quite as well.
Let’s take a quick look at what Cheerios has going for it nutritionally, and what some of its weaknesses are compared to other whole food sources of breakfast grains.
Cheerios have a several things going for them nutritionally. Cheerios are:
Cheerios also have zero cholesterol and are trans fat free.
The main disadvantage of Cheerios is that they are still a processed grain. Whether that matters to you really has to do with how you feel personally about food processing.
Compared to a lot of other breakfast cereals, Cheerios are probably one of the least processed choices out there.
That said, those little “Os” didn’t drop off the oat stalk in the farmer’s field and march into a box untouched by modern industrial food processing machinery.
So how are Cheerios made?
Cheerios are produced in a factory. General Mills takes whole grain oat flour and then adds in some more oat bran and oat fiber (as well as a little sugar and salt.) The flour is then mixed together in a big vat with water and some “binders” like corn and wheat starch and pushed through machinary (also called “dies”) to create the little “Os”. The “Os” are then cooked in a pressurized steam cylinder, dried some more and sprayed with synthetic vitamins.
Next stop: the box, the grocery store and then your cereal bowl.
Does this really matter? Well, yes and no.
Nutritionally, aside from the added salt, Cheerios are about as a “whole” of a cereal as you can get from a factory. Even cereals that people consider ”healthy” like Kashi are made from grain flours — so the process of making Cheerios isn’t fundamentally different from what Kellogg does with Kashi (yes, Kashi is a Kellogg product — Tony the Tiger just doesn’t want you to know this.)
Also, realize that many of the vitamins in Cheerios are not from the grain itself, but rather synthetic vitamins and minerals sprayed on to the cereal at the plant. So if you are looking for whole food sources of vitamins and minerals, you may want to consider something less processed.
There are some benefits to choosing a whole food, less-processed form of healthy grains like oats over a more-processed version like Cheerios.
If you are trying to follow a clean eating or Whole Food/Slow Food philosophy, then in general you’ll choose organic rolled oats or oat groats over processed cold cereals like Cheerios that are made with oat flour. But this is sort of a philosophical thing and a decision that you need to make for yourself.
From a health and nutrition standpoint, the main reason for why you might want to have that bowl of oatmeal instead of Cheerios has to do with how your body digests carbohydrates from whole food sources versus processed cereals.
The carbohydrates in cereals or grain products made with flours are digested more quickly, which increases their glycemic index rating and glycemic load – a way of measuring how much a food raises blood sugar.
For example, Cheerios has a glycemic index (GI) rating of 74 and a glycemic load (GL) of 12 versus old fashioned rolled oats, which have a GI of 46 and GL of 9. Lower GI and GL ratings indicate that a food has less impact on blood sugar levels.
In general, spikes in blood sugar levels are not considered a good thing (although they can be useful immediately following weight training.)
Rapid increases in blood sugar may lead to increased fat storage under particular circumstances — typically in a calorie surplus – but more importantly, you may experience a quick burst of energy, followed by a crash a few hours later. Refined sugars are the leading cause of this, but highly-processed grains can have similar effects — especially if they aren’t balanced out against a protein and fat. This is especially the case with non-whole grain cereals like Special K or Rice Chex.
When you eat grains in their whole, non-flour form, the carbohydrates are digested more slowly, which can help you maintain your energy levels over a longer period of time, with less risk of “crashes.”
One caveat: It’s important to understand that what you eat with cereals that are made with processed whole grain flours can slow down these blood sugar spikes. So if you eat the Cheerios with a protein like skim milk or yogurt and add a healthy fat like peanut butter alongside the cereal, blood sugar can be evened-out.
I’m not suggesting that you make all of your decisions based on the Glycemic Index rating of foods, since GI is controversial and inexact. However, it can help you better understand how processing impacts the way your body responds to carbohydrates and sugars in processed versus whole food sources of grains.
Another benefit of eating cereals like Cheerios made with whole grain oats is the potential cholesterol-lowering effect of the soluble fiber in oats (and Cheerios.)
The fiber in oats and whole-grain oat products and cereals can help “sweep” cholesterol from the body, decreasing overall blood cholesterol levels and possibly reducing the risk of heart disease.
Cheerios have a comparable amount of souble oat fiber to a bowl of oat meal, so including Cheerios or other sources of soluble fiber in your diet is a good idea, in general.
In terms of cold breakfast cereals, I’d give Cheerios a B+ on the healthy eating meter.
While eating whole food sources of oats would be preferable, some people simply don’t like the texture of oatmeal. If this is the case, you could try a muesli or low-sugar granola, which would give you the benefits of whole oats, but with some of the taste and texture advantages of a boxed cold cereal like Cheerios.
Because eating healthier is really about making better choices, if eating a bowl of Cheerios in the morning helps you eat breakfast more frequently and avoid some of the less-healthy options out there, then I would say go ahead and eat them. They are certainly a better choice than something like Special K — which is not a whole grain cereal — and they are obviously much healthier than sugary breakfast cereals.
If you do decide to include Cheerios in your diet, just make sure to choose the original version, and not the sugary, Honey Nut product.
Also avoid heaping on the table sugar, which will quickly cancel out any of the health benefits of the cereal. Instead, try sweetening them naturally with fruits like bananas or berries. Even some honey or maple syrup would be preferable to digging into the sugar bowl.
Finally, always try to balance each of your meals or snacks by including some lean protein from low-fat, unsweetened yogurt or skim milk and a little healthy fat from nut butters (for instance, some almond butter on whole grain toast.) Eating meals that contain all three of these macro-nutritents can keep your energy levels up and discourage over-eating later in the day.
Whole Grain Oats, Modified Corn Starch, Sugar, Oat Bran, Salt, Calcium Carbonate, Oat Fiber, Tripotassium Phosphate, Corn Starch, Wheat Starch, Vitamin E (Mixed Tocopherols) added to preserve freshness.
Serving Size: 1 Cup (30g)
Amount per Serving:
Calories from Fat: 18
Total Fat: 2g 4%
Saturated Fat: 0g 0%
Trans Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 0mg 0%
Sodium: 210mg 9%
Potassium: 200mg 4%
Total Carbohydrates: 22g 8%
Fiber: 3g 12%
Other Carbohydrates: 18g
Protein: 3g 2%
Vitamin A: 10%
Vitamin B6: 25%
Vitamin B12: 25%
Vitamin C: 10%
Vitamin D: 10%
Folic Acid: 50%
*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.