How much sugar and carbs should breakfast cereal have?

It may claim to be ‘healthy’ but this breakfast staple is often just junk food in disguise.

What would you say if somebody told you a slice of pizza is technically healthier than your morning bowl of cereal? You could argue that pizza has more fat, but read the nutrition panel on the box of your favourite flakes, clusters or hoops, and the carb and sugar content may leave you lost for words.

“I’d be surprised if you could find five breakfast products in the supermarket aisle that are actually healthy,” says Belinda MacDougall, CEO of The Healthy Happy Co, which she runs with her husband, former NRL star Adam MacDougall.

While many morning meals often claim to be high in protein or fibre and low in fat, it’s easy to miss what they really contain, unless you have time to study the nutrition panel, she says.

You need a science degree to read a label because there are 50 different names for sugar,” MacDougall tells Body+Soul.

“The big marketing trend of the past 12 months has been ‘30 per cent less sugar’ – but how much sugar is still in it?”

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Why breakfast matters

While waking up with a sugar high may not sound so bad, your breakfast should set you up for the rest of the day – not send you crashing a few hours later.

As nutritionist Catherine Saxelby, founder of advice site Foodwatch, tells Body+Soul: “Breakfast is essential for energy and morning brain power.”

And while eating high-sugar cereals can sabotage an adult’s weight-loss goals, the consequences can be even more detrimental to children. “These cereals can negatively affect a child’s diet and health,” Saxelby says.

“They increase the kilojoules they consume, their preference for unhealthy products and also their perception of the ‘healthfulness’ of a product.”

The fight against sugar

For MacDougall, the dangers of high-sugar breakfast products became apparent after her daughter drank a supposedly “healthy” drink.

“I bought my daughter what I thought was a healthy breakfast shake – it said it had no added sugar – and after she drank it she had a meltdown,” she says. “When I looked at the panel, there was more sugar in it than any other ingredient.”

MacDougall has been pressuring the government for years to bring in stricter laws around labelling of sugar, but when she realised that misleading marketing terms were impacting her children, she took things up a notch. First, she created her own breakfast drink alternative, The Kids Shake, then she launched her online petition Make ‘Healthy’ Healthy, which calls on the federal government to make food companies use clearer terms.

“Everything has a place and every adult has a choice to make, but I think it’s wrong when products deliberately mislead,” she says. “I’ve been petitioning the government hard to put how many teaspoons of sugar a product contains on the front [of packaging], but when I met with them they didn’t seem motivated.”

To be considered healthy, packaged foods such as cereals should have no more than 5g of sugar per 100g, MacDougall says. Most have more than double that.

“Too much sugar is a source of kilojoules, adds no vitamins, minerals or fibre to your daily diet, and is increasingly being linked to weight gain and diabetes,” Saxelby says, noting the World Health Organisation advises it make up no more than 10 per cent of your daily kilojoules – about 12 teaspoons (six for children).

“As consumers, we’re busier than ever and it becomes confusing when we see 10,000 products at the supermarket,” MacDougall says. “There’s no regulation around what you can put on the front of packaging, so companies can make crazy claims even when they’re not really true.”

Saxelby agrees, though she admits it would be difficult to single out breakfast cereals. “It’s not just their sugar content that makes them hard to regulate – it’s their ‘fun’ factor and convenience, as well as their poor nutrition profile as they’re also often kilojoule-dense, low in fibre, high in added salt and highly processed.”

Striking the right balance

While the cereal aisle can be a minefield, not all are bad. In fact, some can help you meet your nutritional needs. “Think of the contribution it makes in terms of vitamins and minerals as well as fibre, wholegrains and protein,” Saxelby says. “Cereals like muesli or bran cereals are low GI, which means they’re digested and absorbed more slowly and fill you up for longer.”

If your cereal has such benefits as well as some sugar, Saxelby says that’s OK. “You don’t need to avoid sugar completely for good health, but it’s sensible to cut back on foods that are low in nutrition.”

Your cereal checklist

Here are the four numbers (per 100g) that nutritionist Catherine Saxelby keeps in mind when choosing cereals:

  • 10g of fibre
  • 50 per cent or more of whole grains
  • 15 per cent or less of sugars
  • 400mg or less of sodium