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.
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.
As the same size serving of an unfortified wheat cereal meets only 10% of the daily value, much of breakfast cereals’ iron content may be due to fortification.
It’s important to monitor your nutrient intake. Many 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
Summary: Fortified cereals contain added vitamins and minerals to help improve nutrient intake.
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. Below the ingredient list, there’s often 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.
Moreover, 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, less heavily processed cereals are less likely to be fortified. For example, muesli usually consists of unfortified whole oats, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit.
Summary: 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.
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.
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, one of North America’s most common birth defects.
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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 and eat folate-rich foods.
Therefore, fortified cereal may benefit women who are or may become pregnant.
Summary: Fortified cereals may reduce your risk of nutrient deficiencies. Specifically, fortifying foods with folic acid has helped reduce the incidence of birth defects.
Potential downsides of fortified cereal
While fortification can enhance nutrient content, cereal is still processed food and isn’t necessarily healthy.
Fortified cereal may be loaded with sugar and refined carbs
Many fortified kinds of cereal are high in added sugar and refined carbs.
Plus, most people eat more than the recommended serving size. In fact, a study of 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 added sugar intake to 25 and 37.5 grams, respectively.
This means 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 exceed guidelines for sugar intake already, 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.
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Research suggests that diets high in added sugar increase your heart disease risk.
Such misleading claims may lead people to overeat foods that aren’t healthy. What’s more, many fortified kinds of cereal 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.
Summary: Fortified cereals are generally not as healthy as their packaging asserts, as many are high in added sugar and refined carbs.
Which kind of cereals 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 kinds of cereal 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.
Summary: It’s best to select cereals that are low in sugar and high in fiber — or 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. You’re better off eating whole, unprocessed foods like eggs or oatmeal for a nutritious breakfast.