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Cold Cereal: Healthy or Unhealthy?
By Gary F. Zeolla
This two-part article is continued from Cold Cereal: Healthy or Unhealthy? – Part One.
Pesticides and GMOs
Another potential problem with cereals is the presence of pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Most commercial cereals probably contain both of these. Again, there is debate if either of these is problematic or not. But neither is natural, so I avoid both as much as possible.
However, grains tend not to draw up as much pesticide residues as fruits and vegetables, so pesticides are not a major concern when it comes to grains. I know this to be true, as I am sensitive to pesticides. I often have problems eating commercial produce, but I only rarely have a problem with commercial grains. But if you want to be sure, many brands of natural cereals are organic.
An organic cereal would also be GMO free, as by definition, certified organic foods must be free of GMOs. But you don’t have to get organic for a cereal to be GMO free. Many non-organic natural cereals are “verified GMO free,” such as the Morning Oat Crunch mentioned in Part One, along with most other cereals by Barbara’s Bakery. Just look for that phrase on the box, or you can check Non GMO Project.
I have not yet written about GMOs beyond the above, but much more on pesticides and organic food can be found in the chapter on “Organic Foods: Worth the Cost?” in my book God-given Foods Eating Plan.
This is again a complicated issue. The glycemic response of a food refers to how much it causes the blood sugar to rise. A high elevation means it is a high-glycemic food, while a small increase means it is a low-glycemic food. A moderate response would make it a moderate-glycemic food.
In 2007 I was diagnosed with reactive hypoglycemia. This means my blood sugar will rise even more than most people after consuming a high glycemic food, but then later drop even lower than most. I discuss all this in detail in the articles at Hypoglycemia, Diabetes, and the Glycemic Index.
But the main point here is it was because of this diagnosis that I switched from eating cold cereal to oatmeal for breakfast. The reason is, cold cereals tend to have a higher glycemic response than oatmeal. And it is this higher glycemic response that causes many to claim that cold cereals are not healthy. And for someone with hypoglycemia or diabetes that is possibly true.
I say “possibly” as I consumed cold cereal most of my life, and despite most likely having reactive hypoglycemia that entire time, the hypoglycemia never developed into full-blown diabetes as it does with many people, and I never developed other problems associated with blood sugar disorders. So the cold cereal was not problematic, but that could be because it was the only food I was consuming regularly that might have been.
Moreover, not all cold cereals have a high-glycemic response. My now favorite cold cereal Morning Oat Squares has a low response. The texture of the cereal mainly determines the response, with airy textures like puffed cereals being highest, while denser cereals like the Oat Squares being lowest, and flakes in-between.
In addition, consuming protein, fat, or even low glycemic carbs with a high glycemic food will lower the glycemic response of the meal. I usually add fruit and nuts to my cereal and use protein powder rather than milk on it, so the blood sugar response is not that high. That is probably why I did not notice any improvement in my health when I made the switch to oatmeal, nor any worsening of my health when I re-added cold cereal into my eating plan for my pre-workout snack.
Moreover, people without blood sugar problems really do not need to be that concerned about the glycemic index. It is only one factor that should be considered in deciding if a food is healthy or not. I discuss all this in detail in the chapter on “The Glycemic Index” in my Eating Plan book.
Moreover, pre-workout a moderate glycemic response is actually a good thing, as the rise in blood sugar helps to fuel the workout. I have found this to be true as my workouts have been going very well with eating the cold cereal pre-workout.
Then after a workout a moderate or even high-glycemic food can be beneficial to quickly replenish lost muscle glycogen. This was detailed in a book on sports nutrition I read a while back. The author had a high school hockey team eating Rice Krispies after workouts and games, and they experienced a significant improvement in their performance. That is what gave me the idea to use cold cereal pre-workout, albeit healthier versions.
Cold cereal is a processed food, and for that reason alone many will not consume it. I can understand that attitude as a basic premise of my Eating Plan book is to eat foods as closely as possible to the forms God provided them. And, needless to say, grains are not found in little circles, flakes, or squares in nature.
However, any food that is altered in any way is a processed food. People process foods all the time in their own kitchens by chopping, mixing, blending, cooking, baking, freezing, and canning foods. Looked at this way, just about all foods that people eat nowadays are processed. Even steamed vegetables are processed. Probably the only major class of food that people eat regularly that has not been processed in some way is raw fresh fruit.
But by “processed” most people are thinking of things done at an industrial level. However that still does not mean a processed food is unhealthy, “Oatmeal, frozen fish and seafood (not fish stick or breaded varieties), canned salmon and tuna, dried fruits, roasted nuts and seeds, and 100-percent whole grain bread are examples of processed foods that are good for you” (Processed Foods Can Be Good -- Or Bad).
At the end of the day, all food exists on a spectrum of processing, from completely unprocessed, in which the food we eat is exactly how it existed in nature (eggs, bananas), to completely processed, in which nothing that goes into a product is in its natural state – if it ever even existed in nature to begin with (Twinkies, Cool Whip).
Most food we eat lies somewhere in between - from minimally processed (canned beans, baby carrots) to highly processed (energy bars, chicken nuggets). A diet that contains a few relatively more processed foods here and there can still support optimal health outcomes. But the more heavily weighted toward the processed side of the spectrum a diet is, the less healthy its eater is likely to be (Is All Processed Food Unhealthy?).
So what we need is a way of classifying processed foods along this continuum. I propose the following three questions to determine how processed a food is:
1. How much are natural occurring nutrients reduced by the processing method?
2. How much and how many artificial ingredients are added to the food?
3. How much does the processing raise the glycemic response of the food?
Using these questions, let’s look at oatmeal. Old-fashioned and quick oats have been altered from the original oat kernel. But in doing so, the oats still retain the naturally occurring nutrients. There are no artificial ingredients added to the oats, and the resulting oatmeal has a low glycemic response. I know the latter to be true for both forms of oatmeal as I have tested them with my blood sugar monitor. As such, old-fashioned and quick oats would be minimally processed foods.
But what about cold cereal? Most cold cereals contain at least some sugar, and sugar has been so processed as to have none of the naturally occurring nutrients in the original sugar cane remaining. So the higher the sugar content of a cereal, the more processed it would be on that basis alone.
For instance, the first ingredient in Fruit Loops is sugar, with 44% of the calories coming from it. Fruit Loops also contain degerminated corn and several artificial colorings and an artificial preservative. I have not tested this cereal with my blood sugar monitor, as I would never eat a food with all of those artificial ingredients, but with the “loops” having a very airy texture, the glycemic response is probably very high. So Fruit Loops would be a highly processed food.
But what about all-natural, low-sugar, whole-grain cereals? I’ll pick one at random, Arrowhead Mills, Organic Amaranth Flakes. It only has four grams of sugar per serving, or 11% of the calories from sugar. All of the grains are whole grains, and there are no artificial ingredients added to it. But being a flake, it has a moderate glycemic response. So that would make it a moderately processed food at best.
But such cold cereal is probably the only food I eat regularly that would even be classified that high. The bulk of the rest of my diet would be unprocessed or minimally processed foods, perfectly in line with my Eating Plan book. So although I have a basic philosophy for my eating plan, I do not slavishly follow that philosophy to the point of not consuming a food I know would benefit me just because it doesn’t fit perfectly in it. So I eat cold cereal as I like it, and I find it to be beneficial. To those points we now turn.
Benefits and Taste
A couple of the possible benefits of cold cereal have already been discussed. First and foremost, it can be a source of healthy whole grains, if you consume a cereal with such grains.
Second, the fortification can be beneficial, if only one serving is consumed. But if more than that I would recommend a natural, non-fortified cereal, while taking a basic multiple-vitamin/ mineral supplement if you believe such is needed.
Third, the reason I consume cold cereal pre-workout, and why it would also be good post-workout, is it is easily and quickly digested. As such, I can eat a bowl of cereal just an hour before a workout, and not only does it not disturb my workout, but it helps to fuel it. And a post-workout bowl of cereal would provide needed nutrients very quickly.
But probably the main reason most people consume cold cereal for breakfast is it is fast and easy. Anyone, even young children, can pour cereal into a bowl and milk on top of it. And this is important as most people do not have much time in the mornings and thus would skip breakfast if they had to take the time to prepare something. That real-world fact cannot be discounted. For instance, when I mentioned to my brother that I had switched from cold cereal to oatmeal for breakfast, he replied, “I don’t have time to cook anything in the morning; that is why I eat cold cereal.”
As for me, that is one reason I used to always eat cold cereal for breakfast. Another reason is it is liquidly, not dry like eggs or sticky like pancakes with syrup. This is important as I am always thirsty in the morning, so a liquidly food is all that tastes good. That is also why I now eat it pre-workout, as consuming liquid before a workout hydrates me for the workout.
But more important than all of these points is cold cereal tastes great! I know real “health nuts” don’t even consider such important, but for most people good taste it is the main reason they eat anything. And since cold cereal can be nutritious, there is no reason to deprive yourself or your children of it. Just be judicious in your choices and which cereals you allow your children to eat.
Studies on Cold Cereal
So that is my opinion on cold cereal. But is there any actual evidence that cold cereals are healthy or unhealthy? Surprisingly, I had a hard time finding studies that had been done on the health implications of cold cereal consumption.
I say “surprisingly” considering the statistic mentioned in the opening of Part One of this article that cold cereals have “a household penetration rate in excess of 90 percent” (Cereals: Reaching Beyond Breakfast). With that widespread consumption, you would think it would be a well-researched topic.
But what studies I did find were mostly positive for cold cereal consumption, with only one possible caveat. I will present a summarizing quote or two for each study, while giving links to the full discussion for the interested reader.
But first, consider the following survey on one site:
My favorite breakfast food is:
Whole-grain cold cereal – 26%
Sugary cold cereal – 6%
Oatmeal – 23%
Bacon and eggs – 21%
Whole wheat toast – 5%
Bagel – 6%
Sweet roll or pastry – 2%
Doughnut – 2%
Breakfast? Who has time? – 9%
(Who Knew Cold Cereal Did This?).
So 32% of people prefer some kind of cold cereal for breakfast, more than any other breakfast food. But more importantly, note the last option: 9% of people do not eat breakfast because they say they do not have the time. That number would probably be greater if it were not for cold cereal. And skipping breakfast has many drawbacks. I have included quotes from several studies that mention such.
Children who breakfast on ready to-eat cold cereals tend to be better nourished than those who breakfast on other foods, according to a study of 1-5 year-olds. University of Missouri nutritionist Gretchen His said her study shows “kids can get a good breakfast on their own by getting out the cereal box and some milk” (The Ledger, The Associated Press, August 30, 1988).
You needn’t feel guilty if you don't cook hot breakfasts for your kids. In a recent large study of children that compared breakfast-skippers, cereal eaters, and kids who had “other” breakfasts, the cereal-eaters came out on top for the healthiest diets….
Twenty-two percent of breakfast skippers were obese, compared to just under 20 percent of the “other breakfast” eaters and 15 percent of the cereal eaters….
They found that 20 percent of children between the ages of nine and 13 and nearly a third of kids from 14 to 18 were skipping breakfast (Cold cereal might beat a hot breakfast).
Frequent consumption of milk, yogurt, cold breakfast cereals, peppers, and cruciferous vegetables and intakes of dietary folate and riboflavin but not vitamins B-12 and B-6 are inversely associated with serum total homocysteine concentrations in the US population… Elevated circulating total homocysteine (tHcy) is an independent risk factor for vascular diseases (Vijay Ganji and Mohammad R Kafai).
•June 9, 2014
A study from the University of Bath (UK) found that people who eat breakfast burn more calories throughout the day and have tighter blood sugar control than test subjects who skipped breakfast.
•January 30, 2014
Research from Umea University in Sweden found that teenagers who fail to eat a good breakfast are more likely to become obese and develop high blood sugar in adulthood.
•November 27, 2013
A study from the USDA Agricultural Research Service found that kids who eat breakfast have an easier time tackling difficult math problems than kids who skip breakfast. The test subjects consisted of kids ages 8 to 11.
•April 10, 2013
A study of 625 children by Dr. Lana Frantzen and the Dairy MAX dairy council found that kids who regularly eat breakfast cereal tend to have a lower Body Mass Index than children who eat breakfast cereal only occasionally.
•October 9, 2012
A study presented at the Learning Connection Summit demonstrated that brain scans of children who eat breakfast show more activity than scans of children who skip breakfast.
•May 14, 2009
The Daily Mail reported that a bowl of cornflakes is just as beneficial as an energy drink for revitalizing tired muscles following a typical exercise session. The findings were based on a small study conducted at the University of Texas (Breakfast Research & Statistics).
People who eat lots of whole-grain foods, especially fiber-rich cereals, may be less likely to develop metabolic syndrome, a clustering of risk factors that often precedes type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, Reuters reports of new research from Tufts University in Boston, Mass. In other words: Eat cereal for breakfast. Stay healthy longer. (Who Knew Cold Cereal Did This?.
A study published in the Nutrition Journal shows that eating a bowl of instant oatmeal for breakfast may be more satiating and helps to manage hunger better than the same amount of calories from an oat-based, cold cereal (Oatmeal may be more satiating than cold cereal).
Note: This only caveat is probably related to the blood sugar spike and drop that cold cereal could cause. But, as mentioned, this can be mediated by adding fruit and nuts to the cereal, while choosing more dense types of cereal rather than airy ones. I’ve never had a problem with hunger shortly after consumption of such a bowl of cereal.
So is cold cereal healthy or unhealthy? I would say highly sweetened cereals made with refined grains and artificial ingredients would be unhealthy, especially if they have an airy texture. But all-natural, low-sugar, whole-grain cereals with a denser texture would be healthy. Many such cereals are available from iHerb. Use coupon code HOP815 to get $5.00 off your first order. See also, Cold Cereals: iHerb Natural Foods Reviews.
Cold Cereal: Healthy or Unhealthy? Copyright © 2014 by Gary F. Zeolla.
Disclaimers: The material presented in this article is intended for educational purposes only. The author is not offering medical or legal advice. Accuracy of information is attempted but not guaranteed. Before undertaking any diet, exercise, or health improvement program, one should consult your doctor. The author is in no way responsible or liable for any bodily harm, physical, mental, or emotional, that results from following any of the advice in this article.
The above article was posted on this site July 26, 2014.
It originally appeared in the free email newsletter FitTips for One and All.
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