/ Food & Drink, Health

Oh sugar! Why can’t breakfast cereals be healthier?

Cereal boxes

Our latest look at breakfast cereals shows that many are improving when it comes to salt but there’s still too much sugar in most. How easy do you find it to choose a healthy option for your morning bowl?

Which? has just carried out a survey of breakfast cereals. We’ve done this several times over the last few years and I’m always surprised at how difficult it can be to find healthier choices among the vast numbers of cereals on offer – particularly when they portray such a healthy image.

This time we found that 32 out of the 50 cereals we looked at were high in sugar. In only two cases was this due to the fruit they contained; for the rest it was added sugar.

Sugar up, salt down

It’s particularly disturbing how few healthy choices are marketed to children – 12 out of the 14 we looked at were high in sugar (Rice Krispies and Weetabix were the only exceptions). Surely it can’t be so difficult to put a cartoon character on healthier choices?

Salt was a more encouraging story and it is clear that most manufacturers have been making reductions. Just eight weren’t yet meeting the salt targets set for the end of 2012 and many had made quite significant reductions since we last looked at cereals in 2009.

We could tell all of this because we compared like with like and added traffic light colour-coding to the nutrient levels in the cereals. But this isn’t something you can do in the supermarket as labelling is so often inconsistent.

For example, eight of the fifty had no front-of-pack nutrition labelling and only 14 included traffic lights. Different serving sizes added to the confusion, as did claims about healthier aspects of some cereals (such as being low in fat) when they were high in sugar.

Breakfast should be easier than this. So isn’t it time cereal manufacturers started to produce a wider range of healthier products and labelled them simply and clearly so that you can easily spot them?


My daily breakfast cereal is Sainsburys “taste the difference” porridge with half a chopped grapefruit – no added sugar, salt or milk – very tasty and low energy release.. Found all other cereals far too sweet.

hoppingpinkrabbit says:
16 February 2012

I have the dorsets rolled porridge oat sachets (30g) I have them in sachets because they are measured for me and I am that lazy! They don’t have anything added, not even soy or milk. I have this with water and a pinch of salt, and have with this however much green tea I can tollerate (which isn’t much!) I have problems with digesting dairy so sadly cannot have a milky tea which would otherwise have been my choice but I know milk itself has sugar so maybe this is a benefit of having a weak digestive system! I like to think what I eat there is low in sugar.

I have a robust digestive system 🙂 But I don’t eat potatoes or drink either tea or coffee with sugar or milk.

Try unsweetened soya milk.


I did – I gagged – and threw the rest away 🙂

30 years ago I used to have traditional toast sausages and egg breakfasts – I was a little overweight – changed to Sainsburys porridge (don’t like texture of some popular brands) – I lost 30 lbs – never put it back.

Have you tried lacto free milk? I’ve spent over 50yrs not able to digest milk until I tried that less than a year ago & now I can have loads of milk on my cereal like a normal person instead of crunching it dry, with not the trace of a stomach ache afterwards. It even tastes ok & the smell of normal milk turns my stomach let alone the taste, although I have been adding a sprinkle of cinnamon because milk has been such a disgusting nightmare for me for so many years I needed to disguise it a little. To most people its probably a silly insignificant thing but I really look forward to my bowl of milky shreaded wheat now, instead of crunching boring dry cornflakes.

It’s quite common for adults to suffer from lactose intolerance even if they could digest it when they were younger: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/lactose-intolerance/ Fortunately many people can cope with small amounts of milk or other products containing lactose.

Once you find shredded wheat boring you could try some proper muesli. Watch out for Swiss-style muesli which is pretty ghastly and more importantly for you, full of milk powder.

I suppose that I must have eaten this rubbish when I was young but now I have a bowl of muesli instead and don’t feel hungry two hours later.

Interesting – I don’t consider porridge “rubbish” but nourishing – I don’t feel hungry for two hours either.

Sorry Richard, but my comment relates to the ghastly stuff mentioned by Sue in the introduction.

Porridge is fine and sustaining, though I prefer muesli, partly because of the texture.

Wavechange, you’re not making your porridge right. Make with water until stodgy and then add milk after. That has a lovely texture, rather than the watery drule of most porridge.

As for breakfast cereals – I’m afraid I often skip my breakfast, which is probably worse for me than eating it.

You might be right, Patrick, but decent muesli has a variety of interesting components to nibble at. I think I may have been a hamster in an earlier life. 🙂

It is difficult to find cereals that are less sweet – whether it is sugar or fruit. For me it’s porridge made with water then add a little milk and the indulgence of a small amount of soft brown sugar in the winter and Weetabix with milk no sugar in the summer.

I’ve spent a lot of time recently trying to find foods for a diabetic (not me). I find it unbelievable that there are all these breakfast cereals with so much sugar… and chocolate in them. There is little choice. Muesli often seems to have milk powder added as well. I’ve now found a granola in M&S which seems a bit lower than most.

The same goes for the cereal bars – so many very sweet ones – including chocolate coated. Sugar seems to be addictive and it takes time to reduce the amount that satisfies your craving. So using sweeteners instead doesn’t solve your problem. Diabetes brings many problems and the drugs for it can also cause you further problems ie not a quick fix solution.

There is plenty of muesli without sugar and milk powder. The stuff to avoid is sometimes identified as ‘Swiss style’.

Being a huge breakfast fan – it’s my favourite meal of the day – I have this dilemma all the time. Some of the cereals you’d think are healthy aren’t always as good as they seem. I’ve also weaned myself off sugary cereals and I eat homemade porridge most days.

I tried EAT’s ‘super’ porridge for a change today and it was delicious. With my Which? hat on I jokingly challenged the cashier lady over what made it ‘super’. Apparently it’s the antioxidants and omega 3 from the ingredients – jumbo oats, linseed, soya flake, apple, blueberry, raisins and cranberries. I imagine it’s not to everyone’s tastes but it was tasty to me.

Mmm, I love adding lots of ‘toppings’ to my porridge: honey, a splash of cold milk, seeds, raisins and cinnamon usually – and if I can be bothered some chopped apple or pear. Yum.

Sophie Gilbert says:
17 February 2012

Grated dark chocolate over porridge made with milk but no sugar.

Two weetabix covered by a good helping of rolled oats to which a small quantity of dried fruit and nuts have been added, finish with a dousing of semi-skimmed milk. Delicious & keeps me going until lunchtime without any weight worries.

I have 2 Weetabix with skimmed milk but sometimes added artificial sweetner as I’m a bit of risk- taker.

I seem to find Waitrose essential oats lacking in taste,
the branded ones seem much better.

I add my own dried fruits and nuts, a favourite
is roasted cashew but it has become awfully

Also add stuff to muesli that I also consume
but less often.

The cinnamon alluded to is inedible (?)
unless powdered…. it’s bark of tree, you know.

Yes, definitely the powdered version for me!

Sheila McKenna says:
16 February 2012

A few years ago my doctor told me I was headed for diabetes. I was lucky enough to be given, courtesy of a kind food scientist at a major cereal brand, a huge batch of data on glycemic indexes in common foods as we usually eat them in meals. One of the changes I made, seeing the facts, was to start eating old fashioned porridge made from coarse, not rolled oats, seasoned with salt. I make a pot every few days, put it in the fridge and warm some in the microwave each morning. I love 1/2 a teaspoon of raw sugar and a couple of tablespoons of the thinnest cream with it. It is sublime, nothing like porridge with rolled oats. The data I saw showed it has better nutritional qualities too, even a bit more protein. The usual cereals fairly much nauseate me now. I can’t imagine how we have fooled ourselves into eating them and giving them to children. The porridge so many of our anticedents ate is utterly delicious and very doable. Needless to say I no longer have any problems with pre diabetes or anything like that.

Coarse oats are digested more slowly, so that you are less likely to feel hungry a couple of hours after breakfast.

Most of us have been victim of advertising, so if you assume that everything you are told in adverts is a lie or a cunning misrepresentation, you won’t go far wrong.

We should all be interested in our diet, but beware of the fact that there are people profiting from selling expensive health foods and food supplements. Good wholesome food is not expensive, and you give an excellent example of this.

Went to my local large Waitrose, nothing on the shelf
with ‘coarse oats’ stocked. Cd it be known by any other

Thanks for sharing, always receptive to ideas on
good nutrition…may go (back) to coarse oats.

It’s really easy to make your own muesli, too – then you know exactly what’s in it:

> Heat some oil and honey in a big pan together in the oven
> Stir in oats so they’re coated and put back in the oven until lightly browned
> Meanwhile, chop up any dried fruit you want to add – e.g. apricots
> Add any nuts/seeds to the oats and toast for a few more minutes
> Add the dried fruits at the end
> Cool – and eat!

This is delicious, I used to make it all the time – this Conversation has just reminded me so I might start again!

Nutritionist and cordon bleu cook Jane gave a recipe
somewhat along these lines in the cable food channel
in the mid or late 1990s….. difficult to get good nutritional
info on current food channel or on terrestrial TV for that
matter nowadays.

This is an interesting one to me. I have always strived to eat a healthy breakfast that is high in fibre, low added sugar and low GI so that I properly set myself up for the day and hopefully stave off hunger until lunch to stop the snacking but they really are quite hard to find.
I have always believed that having a big but healthy breakfast is key to maintaining a healthy diet and it works well for me, but in an interesting twist recently the Telegraph published and article about a study that shows that, as consuming a good sized breakfast staves off hunger, so consuming a sweet breakfast staves off cravings for sweet things later in the day.
The study was conducted by giving the participants chocolate cake for breakfast so maybe having a sweet breakfast cereal isn’t such a bad thing after all.

i was appalled to read this report, it shocked and surprised me. I have discussed this with others too and i was not alone in assuming that all breakfast cereals are kind of healthy – how wrong we were! I might as well as have eaten cake! When I went to the supermarket, i discovered that brands like jordans are basically 1/3 sugar – and they are the supposed healthy (and expensive) brands. I’ve been having dizzy spells from blood sugar fluctuations, and no wonder! I have switched to shredded wheat and weetabix and have been feeling much better.

Thank you, you have educated me and my family about how irresponsibly these cereals are marketed.

oops dorset i meant not jordans

I find some of these mueslis too sweet (too much fruit) and I pick it out and I prefer jumbo oats (my partner doesn’t but sometimes I refill that box). I tried to find out what steel cut oats were as I thought these were better than rolled oats but didn’t succeed in finding any.

I too used to make my own muesli many many years ago and used to add lots of favourite fruit and nuts but recently have been trying to support a diabetic who can’t even eat all these dried and fresh fruits because of their fruit sugar (fructose) which I had always understood was supposed to be better for you than the refined stuff.

I’m sure it is all getting sweeter and see that vegetables are being bred sweeter eg: supersweet corn… which will make it harder to keep food sugar levels down.

Hilary says:
24 August 2014

Food manufacturers treat us all like babies, adding sugar, Mary Poppins style, to foods which are otherwise insipid and unattractive. They even add it to cat food. (When asked why, seeing that cats in nature do not require sugary foods, the reply was ‘to make it more palatable’)! I rest my case!