Champion of Breakfasts

Cereal boxes are loaded with information for you to chew on while downing bowls of the stuff. But what do all those numbers mean, and which brands are healthiest? TheMarker breaks it down.

Orna Banai promotes Telma Bran Flakes. The popular actress tells us that the breakfast cereal is the central source of fiber. Rival cereal manufacturer Nestle counters with fitness figure Anat Harel, who smiles that for the sake of good nutrition, one should start each day with a bowl of Fitness cereal.

Beyond the ads touting the advantages of the cereals, the packages themselves strut their stuff - fortified with vitamins, minerals, fiber, whole grains, "less than 2% fat" and so on.

Israelis seem to buy the patter: According to market research company Nielsen, sales of breakfast cereals have been growing by the year. The figure for 2010 is expected to reach about NIS 620 million. In other words, those little bowls mean big business.

The company with the biggest market share by far is Telma-Unilever with 56.6%, maker of popular brands such as Kariot and Cocoman. It is followed by Osem-Nestle with 27%.

All brands make promises of one sort or another. What nutritional value do they actually have? We chose 10 highly popular products, based on sales figures from Nielsen's, and asked two nutrition experts, Michal Sukman of Kupat Holim Maccabi health maintenance organization, and Dr. Relly Abel, a clinical medical dietician at Kupat Holim Clalit Health Services, to evaluate their nutritive qualities.

Their analysis is based on reading the list of ingredients and nutritional values published on the packages. The were kept blind to the actual brand name identity of the specific product they were analyzing.

Sukman and Abel found that the caloric content of the 10 cereals was roughly the same. But they differed widely in specifics, such as fat content, sodium (salt ), fiber and other components.

Because each cereal has a different set of characteristics, for instance one might be good on fiber but bad on salt or sugar, or vice versa, it is hard to rank them beyond generalities.

That said, Telma's Bran Flakes was crowned the most highly recommended cereal of the 10 that Sukman and Abel checked. It has 23.8 grams of fiber per 100 grams of cereal. The dieticians said Bran Flakes was also relatively high in protein and relatively low in carbohydrates, while fat was under 3%. Also, per 100 grams, the flakes had about 100 calories less than the other cereals.

The least recommended cereal of the 10, in the opinion of Sukman and Abel, was Telma Kariot stuffed with "nougat" - chocolate cream. It has high fat content, 15.4%, and isn't made of whole grains. It also had among the highest calorie counts per 100 grams: a whopping 435.

The dieticians were unimpressed with Kellogg's Cornflakes because of its high sodium count - without which they would have recommended it more highly. Nor were they happy with Telma's Shugi, made chiefly of corn and sugar. Also on the bad list, nutrition-wise, was Nestle's Cini-Minis cereal, because of its 10% fat content, and high sodium level of 500 milligrams per 100 grams.

Here are a few rules of thumb to help you choose cereal, if nutrition is a criterion. Note that ingredients are listed in descending order, so if sugar is first, that is the main ingredient.

1 Many cereals have such high sugar content that they would be better defined as candy. "It is true that usually, the first ingredient is whole grains. But in my opinion it's like a slice of bread with chocolate spread," says Sukman. If these whole grains were served without sugar and were added to milk or yogurt, then she would recommend them, but as is - daily consumption isn't a good idea, in her opinion. Her advice: Choose cereals in which sugar isn't among the first ingredients.

2 See what the source of carbohydrates is: sugars, or complex carbohydrates. The cereals generally have a similar component of carbohydrates: 70-80 gram per 100 grams of cereal. The thing is, the origin of the carbohydrates matters.

The problem is that it isn't always easy to uncover the source. The proportion of carbohydrates derived from sugar in Telma products couldn't be ascertained. Unilever commented that the nutritional information on the packaging complies with Israeli standards, which require disclosure of five elements: calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat and sodium. A new standard has been formulated regarding information on sugar, but it hasn't come into force yet, Unilever said. When appropriate, it will be updating its packaging, the company said.

"Carbohydrates originating from white sugar or glucose are empty calories that can lead to diabetes and weight gain," says Sukman. "But there are carbohydrates originating from whole grains that are nutritious."

For instance, the Fitness Almonds & Honey cereal made by Nestle contains 77.7 grams of carbohydrates per 100 grams of cereal - and almost 50 grams, or two-thirds, originates from grains, meaning "good" carbohydrates.

3 The more fiber a product has, the healthier it is. Fiber helps digestion, it's as simple as that. It helps rid the body of toxins and some claim fiber reduces the incidence of colon cancer. (Not all studies support that contention. )

It may be surprising, but no correlation was found between the presence of whole grains and the amount of fiber in the cereals. Telma Cocoman's primary ingredient is white flour, not whole wheat flour, but it has a high 7.8 grams of fiber per 100 grams - more than was found in a cereal made of whole wheat.

Abel suggests that the amount of fiber matters more than if the cereal is made of white or whole wheat flour. In Cini-Minis, for instance, and Special-K, one may find whole wheat and rice, but their actual amount of fiber is low.

4 Sweet cereals may have a lot of salt. Excessive sodium intake has been associated with a number of conditions, including high blood pressure and heart trouble. Chocolate-flavored cereals tend not to have high concentrations of sodium, but the others well may - between 380 to 570 milligrams of the stuff per 100 grams of cereal. (Low-sodium products have less than 100 mg per 100 grams ).

The highest sodium concentration of 10 ten cereals we checked was in Special-K, which had 850 mg per 100 grams.

The recommended daily intake of sodium is 3,000 mg, which means that two bowls of Special-K will take you a third of the way - before you've eaten anything else typically rich in sodium, such as bread, soup or meat. There is no good reason at all to consume that much sodium in breakfast cereal, says Abel.

5 The caloric content of one 100-gram bowl of breakfast cereal with milk is equivalent to a breakfast of three slices of bread, one egg, salad with olive oil, and cheese.

Note that the nutritional values listed on the packaging are usually for one serving, defined as 30 grams. Most people eat more than that at a single sitting. "People eat twice or even three times more for breakfast," estimates Sukman - and don't forget that the milk isn't included in the calorie count of the companies. A big bowl plus milk can be equivalent to about 500 calories, most of which is sugar.

6 Don't assume that your body is getting the full benefit of added vitamins and minerals. Note for instance that milk hinders the absorption of iron by the body.

7 Even if all else is well, the fat content may be a deal-killer. Some products contain adequate fiber, but the amount of fat renders them bad, nutritionally speaking, says Abel. Telma's Kariot has 5.6 grams of fiber but also 15.4 grams of fat per 100 gram. Of that, 3.7 grams is saturated fat - which means the carbon atoms in the fat molecule are saturated with hydrogen. Saturated fat has been associated with high cholesterol levels. And don't forget that the fat content is just the cereal, to which most people add 3% milk.