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The question: What should I look for on the label when buying breakfast cereal?

The answer: If you make the right cereal choice at the grocery store, no other breakfast offers as much fibre, calcium, iron and zinc for so few calories and so little fat. But not all ready-to-eat cereals are created equal. You need to read nutrition labels to know what's inside your box of cereal – and what's not.

The most nutritious cereal is low in sugar and sodium, high in fibre and made from whole grains. Read the ingredient list to determine if a cereal is mostly whole grain or mostly refined grain. Look for a whole grain – e.g. oats, whole wheat, whole rye, flaxseed, brown rice – as the first ingredient on the list. Even better, choose a cereal that lists only whole grains on its ingredient list.

While 100-per-cent bran cereals aren't truly whole-grain cereals, you can consider them as such since they are a concentrated source of bran that's missing from refined grains.

Breakfast should also put a dent into your daily fibre requirements: Adults, aged 19 to 50, require 38 grams (men) and 25 grams (women). (Older men and women need 30 g and 21 g, respectively.) Choose a cereal that delivers at least 4 g to 5 g of fibre per serving.

Cereals made from whole wheat and wheat bran contain mainly insoluble fibre, the type that promotes regularity. Soluble fibre, found in oats, psyllium and flaxseed, slows the rise in blood sugar after eating, helping you stay satisfied longer. Soluble fibre also helps lower blood cholesterol.

When it comes to sugar, look for a cereal with no more than 6 g of sugar (1.5 teaspoons worth). Added sugars such as sucrose, brown rice syrup, cane syrup and honey are added to many breakfast cereals for flavour, texture and browning. Once you start reading labels, you might be surprised to see how many times added sugar appears on the ingredient list.

Keep in mind the grams of sugar on nutrition labels don't discern between added (refined) sugars and naturally occurring sugars found in fruit. Cereals with dried fruit such as raisins, raspberries and blueberries may have more than 6 g of sugar per serving. They'll also have more fibre, which is a good thing.

Choose the lowest sodium cereal possible, with no more than 250 mg per serving.

If you're counting calories, pay attention to serving size too. In general, a serving size of cereal is typically 3/4 to 1 cup. The serving size for denser cereals such as granola and muesli is 1/3 to 1/2 cup. Read the serving-size information on the nutrition label. If you eat a larger portion, you're getting more calories, sugar and sodium.

Best bowls in the cereal aisle

Look for a whole-grain cereal with at least 4 g to 5 g of fibre, no more than 6 g of sugar and no more than 250 mg of sodium per serving. If your favourite breakfast cereal meets the sugar and sodium cut-offs but doesn't quite reach the fibre target, add fresh fruit to your breakfast to increase your fibre intake.

Here are four brands that make the grade:

  • General Mills Fibre 1 Original 1/2 cup: 60 calories, 14 g fibre, 0 g sugar, 110 mg sodium
  • Kellogg’s All-Bran Flakes 1 cup: 120 calories, 5 g fibre, 5 g sugar, 210 mg sodium
  • Nature’s Path Flax Plus Flakes 3/4 cup: 110 calories, 5 g fibre, 4 g sugar, 135 mg sodium
  • Post Shredded Wheat & Bran 1 cup: 170 calories, 7 g fibre, 0 g sugar, 0 mg sodium

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She is a regular contributor to CTV News Channel; lesliebeck.com.