As the fields of dietetics and nutritional research have expanded in the past 50 years, so breakfast has become more complicated. Spector points out that when breakfast cereals debuted, “we assumed they were healthy – mainly because of the marketing and publicity. There was little research on it, other than when we started to be concerned about the sugar content of cereals.”
Since then, they have become more of a pet peeve. The chief problem is the processing: the cooking, rolling, cutting, reconstituting, blending and puffing of the various grains you find in breakfast cereals raise their sugar content and reduce their natural fiber and nutritional value. “These foods are so highly processed, there’s not much structure that reaches the lower part of the gut, so sugars are released early into the bloodstream,” says Spector.
And while the manufacturers add vitamins and minerals back in – in chemical form – there is no knowing whether they have opted for the cheapest possible supplements. “The iron, for example, may not be absorbed at all. It may just pass straight through. In many ways, breakfast cereals are the equivalent of the supplements market: they make these huge claims on the packet, without providing any evidence that these things enter the bloodstream.”
He says the upshot is that we are fooled into eating what is effectively fake food, “when you’d be better off having leftovers from last night’s meal, or an egg, or a full-fat yogurt” – a low-fat diet being yet another food fad to have been blown open by more recent research. In 2017, McMaster University in Ontario, which studied 135,000 people in 18 countries over a decade, found that those who ate the least fats were a quarter more likely to die early – suggesting that what people replace meat and full-fat dairy products with could turn out to be more dangerous than the saturated fats themselves.
Given the enormous sway cereal brands have had over the British and American idea of a healthy breakfast, it seems reasonable that they are now being subjected to some scrutiny. Every year since 2019, the Food Foundation charity has conducted the Broken Plate report, documenting the health of our food system and the impact it has on our lives. Its latest report, released last month, concluded that most breakfast cereals fail to meet the green rating under the Government’s front-of-pack nutritional labeling guidance for levels of sugar and saturated fat – and many remain red.
The health halo
According to nutritionist Katharine Jenner, director of Action on Sugar, the report shows that while cereal brands have made some steps to reduce sugar, salt and saturated fat, they have much further to travel. Imagery and labelling, for example, continue to be misleading. “You can have an unhealthy cereal, spray on vitamin B or iron supplements, and make a vitamin B or iron claim,” she notes – regardless of the quality of these nutrients or how easily your body can access them. “We find if you put a health claim on food, it has a ‘health halo’ effect, which stops you scrutinizing the nutrition panel and seeing what’s really in the food and whether it relates to the product.”
Meanwhile, those cereals that are not necessarily healthy can trade off the reputations of foods that are. Sometimes this is explicit. “Weetabix is a good cereal,” says Jenner, “but chuck some chocolate chips in it and it’s high in sugar. Still, Weetabix Chocolate carries the ‘health halo’ of Weetabix.” See also Frosted Shreddies and Golden Syrup Quaker Oats.
More subtle are cereals that trade off the reputations of whole foods, when the amount of processing entailed in their production renders them practically unrecognizable: dried fruit pieces, which are invariably more refined sugar than anything else, imply all the benefits of fresh fruit; instant oats, which are partially cooked, then rolled even thinner to reduce their cooking time, carry the health halo of whole oats.
Recently, porridge has been going through a fashionable phase all of its own, at least among a certain stratum of the population. (“It’s interesting that what was once a subsistence food is now quite a middle-class food,” Cloake says wryly.) Yet there is a long and large difference between whole, steel-cut oats, and the pale imitations you find in packets of instant or even rolled oats.