Surprise! What’s in that healthy cereal

dubiously healthy cerealLIKE MANY OF YOU, I’M A COMPULSIVE READER OF INGREDIENTS LABELS. But I have a confession: the “healthier: I perceive a product to be, the less likely I am to check the ingredients. As a result, I’m often unpleasantly surprised to discover when I get home, that, say, my frozen peas have added salt or my maple yogurt has caramel coloring.

Now I try to check every label every time. I might still buy the “salt free”canned tomatoes even though the ingredients say “sodium chloride” (a salt – I’m talking to you, Trader Joe’s) but at least I know what I’m eating.

Last time I was in the cereal aisle, I saw one of my (no longer) favorite cereals on sale: Quaker Oat Squares. “Oh,” I thought, “Lucky me. Maybe I’ll buy it.” But then I checked the ingredients….


QUAKER OAT SQUARES

What the label touts:

  • “heart healthy”
  • “96% of your minimum whole grain needs”
  • “Good source of fiber and calcium”

What else you’ll find:

  • Yellow 5
  • BHT

Yellow dye? What the what? I decided to check some other “healthy”choices.


KELLOGG’S FIBERPLUS® BERRY YOGURT CRUNCH CEREAL

What the label touts:

  • “Heart Healthy Selection”
  • “Antioxidants”
  • high in fiber
  • whole grain

What else you’ll find:

  • red 40
  • blue 2
  • green 3
  • blue 1
  • red 40 lake
  • blue 2 lake
  • BHT

KELLOGG’S SMARTSTART® STRONG HEART ANTIOXIDANTS CEREAL:

What the label touts:

  • “Good source of fiber”
  • “made with whole grain”
  • “Strong Heart”
  • “Antioxidants”

What else you’ll find:

  • Yellow #5
  • BHT

I’M NOT DISPUTING THE LABEL CLAIMS (although I personally think label claims are a bunch of hooey), but I do question whether the health benefits outweigh the negative impact of eating dyes and chemicals for breakfast each day.

The safety of food dyes has been in question for years. Great Britain has outlawed them and US manufacturers have found other ways to color foods for consumption there. Food producers in the U.S. are starting to get the picture, too, and have started to switch to fruit and vegetable based colorings – most notably, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish.

BHT is used as a preservative and an antioxidant. When food producers use BHT as a preservative, they can also promote an antioxidant claim, even if the antioxidants come solely from the man-made BHT, not from any berries or other food ingredients. The FDA considers it safe, but I avoid it when I can because, from what I can find out (for example, here), it’s safety isn’t 100% clear. There are alternative preservatives for food producers to use, such as mixed tocopherols (vitamin E) — also an antioxidant. Many of the more “natural” brands of cereal contain it, as do all of the brands of dog food I have ever purchased for my dog over the past 13 years. Why wouldn’t I hold the food for my children to the same standard?

THE BOTTOM LINE: Read the ingredients. Even “healthy” foods can contain substances you might not want to consume. If you don’t know what it is, think hard about whether you want to eat it and feed it to your family.