You’re adamant about keeping sugary cereals out of your kids’ bowls and instead only bring home breakfast grains that boast lots of vitamins and minerals on the box: fortified cereals. But does that really mean they’re healthy? We spoke to Dr. Felicia Stoler, DCN, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and exercise physiologist, to find out the truth.
What Are Fortified Cereals?
All fortified foods contain vitamins and minerals that are manually added rather than naturally occurring. “Fortification came about in the last century as a way of ensuring that illnesses associated with vitamin deficiency were avoided,” says Stoler. “Fortification went into foods that are considered ‘staples’ and were affordable for most people.” That’s why products that are commonly fortified include essentials like cereal, grains, baby formula, milk and juice. Most fortified cereals are pre-packaged and ready to enjoy cold, but you can also find fortified oatmeal and hot cereal at the supermarket.
Any ready-to-eat cereals that list a whole grain as their first ingredient must also be fortified unless the cereal is 100 percent whole grain, according to the USDA. “All wheat derived foods [in the U.S.] are fortified with B vitamins, folic acid and more,” says Stoler. So, while milk and juice are most commonly fortified with calcium and vitamin D in the U.S. (hooray for strong bones and teeth), fortified cereals contain a slew of additional vitamins and minerals.
The difference can be significant. For instance, a cup of cereal made with standard wheat meets about 10 percent of your daily recommended iron. The same amount of cereal made with fortified wheat can easily cover 100 percent of your daily iron intake, containing as much as 40 mg per cup. Here are some common fortifiers, plus why they’re good for you:
B vitamins: These include thiamine, riboflavin and niacin (vitamins B1, B2 and B3), plus vitamins B6 and B12. Their main purpose is to boost energy, but they also aid the nervous system, blood and skin.
Folic acid: The U.S. is among a handful of countries that require wheat flour, a common ingredient in packaged cold cereals, to be fortified with folic acid, the synthetic form of folate. Also known as vitamin B9, folic acid is used to create new cells in the body. It’s especially great for pregnant women because it prevents birth defects, namely neural tube defects like spina bifida or anencephaly, according to the CDC.
Calcium: A study by scientists at the ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center found that kids who scarf down a bowl of calcium-fortified cereal in the morning get their daily recommended calcium more easily, and without decreasing their iron absorption. In addition to being crucial for healthy teeth and bones, maximum calcium consumption in childhood can deter osteoporosis later in life.
Zinc: Wound recovery, immune health, metabolic functioning: this nutrient does it all. It’s also a popular treatment for cold symptoms, says the Mayo Clinic.
Vitamin A: Getting your daily recommended amount of vitamin A is great for eye health, cell growth, immune system strength and organ function, specifically that of the heart, lungs and kidneys, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Vitamin C: Also called ascorbic acid, vitamin C is commonly relied on as a cold remedy (though it won’t do you any good to start taking it once you’re already sick). In fortified foods, vitamin C is an antioxidant that aids in the formation of blood vessels, cartilage, muscle and collagen, says Mayo Clinic. It also protects your body from free radicals, which have a hand in cancer and heart disease development. Vitamin C also helps the body store iron.
Pantothenic acid: Like all other B vitamins, vitamin B5 converts carbs to glucose, which the body turns into energy (meaning a bowl of fortified cereal with this stuff in it is great for sleepy kids first thing in the morning). It’s also critical to the growth of red blood cells and certain hormones and glands, says Mount Sinai Hospital.
Magnesium: The 300+ enzymes in our bodies affected by magnesium do everything from regulate blood sugar and blood pressure to maintain healthy muscle and nerve function, says Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Magnesium also helps our muscles contract and our hearts beat steadily.
Is Fortified Cereal Healthy?
“Fortified cereals can be part of a healthy diet,” says Stoler. If you don’t take a multivitamin every day or eat a well-balanced diet, fortified cereal is an easy way to get your daily recommended vitamin and mineral counts up. They can also be especially beneficial to pregnant women, kids and vegetarians. “Almost all cereals are fortified, so the question of ‘healthy’ becomes one of choice. What do you look for on a food label? For me, I look at calories and fiber.”
So, it really depends on the cereal. Some lack real nutrition or contain a ton of sugar or fat (we’re looking at you, beloved Cap’n Crunch). The healthiest fortified cereals are those made from whole grains that also have high fiber and protein. Lots of fiber and/or protein for breakfast = feeling satisfied until lunch. How much fiber should you aim for? “I recommend having cereal with at least 4 to 5 grams of fiber per serving,” says Stoler.
The Potential Downsides of Fortified Cereals
While there are perks to eating fortified cereals, it’s technically possible to consume too many vitamins and minerals. But according to the Cleveland Clinic, it’s not something to stress about. An upset stomach is a potential short-term consequence of eating too many vitamins and minerals; long-term, consequences of excessive consumption (namely of vitamin A, niacin and zinc) include liver and skeletal damage and a weakened immune system. If you’re worried, take your diet into consideration. If its balanced enough, you might be able to skip your supplements or multivitamin altogether and lower your risk for overdoing it with a fortified cereal.
But if you steer clear of cereal just because of the carbs, you may want to reconsider. “Too many people get hung up on carbs or added sugar,” says Stoler. “Cereals are from grains, which means they will have carbs, which equals grams of carbs and sugar on the label.” So, don’t make yourself nuts dodging carbs or sugar when it comes to fortified cereals (unless you’re on keto or another low-carb diet); just try to find a high-fiber cereal with less sugar that you actually enjoy eating. (BTW, the American Heart Association recommends that women limit their daily sugar intake to six teaspoons and men to nine teaspoons a day, or about 25 and 36 grams respectively…which isn’t much when you take into consideration that a can of soda has eight.) Oh, and it won’t kill you (or, ahem, us) to occasionally measure out cereal according to its recommended serving size instead of filling the bowl to the top.
Shopping for Healthy Cereal? We Like These
“In all fairness, between Kellogg's, Post and General Mills, they all make some that might be considered healthier than others,” says Stoler. In other words, you have plenty of options at the grocery store and you won’t have to search too hard to find them. You just need to know where to look and what to look for (i.e., more fiber, less sugar). Pro tip: Look up when you shop. “I do suggest looking on the top two shelves in the supermarket. That’s where the healthier cereals sit on the shelf.”
Here are 12 healthy cereals to add to your shopping list:
Cracklin’ Oat Bran (It’s Stoler’s go-to.)