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.
What is fortified cereal?
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).
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. 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.
Breakfast cereals are commonly fortified with the following nutrients:
- vitamin A
- thiamine (vitamin B1)
- riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- niacin (vitamin B3)
- vitamin B6
- vitamin B12
- vitamin D
- folic acid
Which types of cereals are fortified?
Food manufacturers often fortify ready-to-eat, pre-packaged cereals — and sometimes hot cereals like oatmeal. 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). 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.
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. 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.
Health benefits of fortified cereal
Eating fortified cereal may help prevent nutrient deficiencies.
Improved nutrient intake
Many people in the United States don’t meet the dietary recommendations for certain vitamins and minerals. As such, eating fortified foods may help. A recent study noted that eating fortified foods boosted the intake of folate and vitamins A and C. Some people, such as young children, vegetarians, and pregnant or breastfeeding women, may benefit particularly from fortified cereals due to their increased nutrient needs. That said, fortified foods may increase your risk of exceeding certain nutrient recommendations.
Lower risk of birth defects
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. Folate is a B vitamin necessary for proper growth and development. In fact, all women of childbearing age are advised to consume 400 mcg of folic acid daily from fortified foods and/or supplements, as well as eat folate-rich foods. Therefore, fortified cereal may benefit women who are or may become pregna
Potential downsides of fortified cereal
While fortification can enhance nutrient content, cereal is still a processed food and isn’t necessarily healthy.
May be loaded with sugar and refined carbs
Many fortified cereals are high in added sugar and refined carbs. Plus, most people eat more than the recommended serving size. In fact, a study in 72 adults determined that people ate 200% of the labeled serving size, on average. For instance, 1 cup (53 grams) of Raisin Bran Crunch packs 13 grams of added sugar. Doubling that portion size would provide a whopping 26 grams of added sugar.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), women and men should limit their daily intake of added sugar to 25 and 37.5 grams, respectively. 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.
Misleading health claims
Many manufacturers label their cereals with misleading health claims, such as “low-fat” or “whole-grain”. 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. Research suggests that diets high in added sugar raise your risk of heart disease. 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. As such, you should read labels carefully to avoid any deceptive claims.
Which kind should you choose?
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. 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.
The bottom line
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.
Source: Health Line