June 23, 2014

Label Madness Monday: Cereal Cups to Go

It’s been a while since I posted a dig at food labels. And like I mentioned recently, I’m working on a project these days that is eating a lot of my writing time, so it might be a little bit before I get another fuel metabolism post up. In the meantime, I’m trying to prevent total blog silence, so I’m posting things I can put together relatively quickly. So here goes.

I’ve posted a lot about cereal before, and that’s because it’s a perennial favorite of mine when it comes to food label bashing. I’ve said it before, and I know I’ll say it again: overt junkfood doesn’t bother me. Twinkies, cupcakes, brownies, cookies—everyone knows these things are junk, and no one’s trying to market them as anything but junk. But cereal and granola…whoo-whee, now there is some major marketing wizardry at work, my friends. Blood sugar napalm masquerading as healthy breakfast options. Whole grain health hellholes.

At the risk of beating this over people’s heads, let’s have a look at a few of these items that are supposed to be soooo good for us—not just because they’re made from whole grains, but because they’re low in fat, too. (Blood sugar napalm and an atom bomb, just in case the napalm didn’t wipe out enough life down there on the ground. Gotta cover all the bases, right? Wouldn’t want to leave a single soul with any semblance of pancreatic function when were done with ’em!)

The reason I wanted to take another look at these kinds of products (yes, that’s “products”—I refuse to call these “foods”) is that now, we have some context by which to evaluate these things. Now that we’ve learned a little something about fuel partitioning and how our hormonal state influences whether we primarily run on carbohydrates or fats, and how reaching an appropriate body weight and attaining good health is about far more than calories in and calories out, we can see these kinds of products for what they really are: absolute dietary disasters.

Okay, on with the show.

Up first: Kellogg’s Special K Fruit & Yogurt.

As you can see, it’s a good source of fiber and made with whole grains.

First, let’s check out the size of this bad boy.

2.7 ounces. 76 whole grams of food. I think I flossed more than that out of my teeth last night…

So this is advertised as a good source of fiber & whole grains. Let’s see what else it’s a good source of.

Looks like it’s a fantastic source of carbohydrates! 65 grams, in fact, for just 76 grams of total product. That’s almost one gram of carbohydrate per gram of product by weight. Well played, Kellogg’s, well played! Another couple teaspoons of sugar and you could have gone gram for gram! See what else this is a good source of? Sugar, corn syrup, brown sugar syrup, brown sugar, confectioner’s glaze, red 40 and blue 1 colorings, rice flour, wheat fiber. Holycrapohmygodthatisinsane. Ding ding ding! We have a breakfast winner!

They’re joking, right? 65g of carbohydrate for 2.7 ounces of food? Do I need to do that math trick where I tell you how much of something like, say, asparagus, you’d have to consume to reach 65 grams of carbohydrate? 1625 grams, or 3.58 pounds. Yes, that’s over three and half pounds of asparagus you could cram down for 65 grams of carbohydrate, and that (insane) amount of asparagus would bring with it way more fiber (real fiber, not wheat fiber and tapioca dextrin and all kinds of other weird crap), and way more naturally occurring nutrients than Kellogg’s could ever hope to shove in here. (Three-plus pounds of asparagus would also bring with it a huge dose of that funky pee smell, so don’t try this at home, kids! BTW: That funky pee smell when you eat asparagus? Totally normal!)

Look at what else I circled, toward the bottom, ‘cuz this is hilarious. This is marketed as a fruit and yogurt breakfast. Now, most of the benefit of yogurt comes from its probiotics, right? The beneficial bacteria that are helpful for our digestive and immune systems, right? Well, y’know, those “good bugs” are heat labile. That means they don’t stand up to heat. (i.e., if you heat yogurt past a certain temperature, the probiotics die.) The ingredient here is nonfat yogurt powder. But do you see what it says in the parentheses? “Heat-treated after culturing.” Know what that means? Dead yogurt. It means Kellogg’s likely started with some good, honest, cultured yogurt, and then blasted it with heat to turn it into “yogurt powder,” thereby destroying the yogurt’s raison d’etre. Way to go, Kellogg’s, way to go.

On to the next victim product:

Also Kellogg’s, also an awesome breakfast ridiculous. 

Low fat granola with raisins.

As you can see, this is a multi-grain cereal, and the little cup weighs in at a whopping 2.25 ounces. 63 enormous grams of food. (I’m pretty sure I had more than that stuck to the bottom of my shoe when I worked at the Chinese take-out place when I was in high school.)

And how much carbohydrate in this itty bitty cup?

50 grams. Jeez oh man! And where do those 50 grams come from? How about the oats, the wheat, the sugar, the rice, the corn syrup, the raisins, the molasses, and the modified corn starch? The best thing in this ingredients list is the palm oil! And what does it provide? Combined with a couple of almonds, we’ve got 3.5 grams of fat. 3.5 grams of nourishing, satiating fat to balance the 600-pound sugar elephant sitting on the other end of the blood sugar see-saw. Why don’t they just double package this with a syringe of insulin and a Metformin chaser? You’re gonna need ‘em…

I saved the best for last, so I hope someone out there is still reading. You are not gonna believe this one, y’all. (Did I just say “y’all?” Eek! Way too much time in Virginia, apparently. Time for me to go back north of the Mason Dixon line, where the tea isn’t sweet and neither is anyone behind a cash register!)

Nature Valley low fat fruit granola. Just by the fact that they emphasize that this is low fat, you already know what’s coming. (Because they don’t mean it in the same sense that broccoli, eggplant, and cauliflower are low fat. They mean it in the same sense that marshmallows and chocolate syrup and confectioner's sugar are low fat.)

Yep, just in case we didn’t get it from the front of the label, General Mills (parent company for Nature Valley) has kindly reminded us off to the side that it’s still low fat, and, of course, made with whole grains and is a good source of fiber. Know what else is a good source of fiber? The wood in my kitchen table, but you don’t see me trying to take a bite out of it. (Okay, it was only the one time…and Ive managed to sand away the teeth marks, so just leave me the hell alone about it already, okay?!)

Here’s why I said I saved the best for last.

This looks bad enough at first glance, when it looks like a 55-gram cup of granola that provides 44g of carbohydrate. BUT WAIT…THERE’S MORE!! The fun doesn’t stop there, kids. Do you see what’s in the red box up top? This is TWO SERVINGS! As Suze Orman would say, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?”

So this is really 88 grams of carbohydrate! 88 grams! HOLY CRAP! I’m not even going to try to hide my shock. (Yes, that’s for 110 grams of granola, but still. THAT DOES NOT MAKE THIS ANY BETTER.) The second ingredient here is sugar. And don’t forget the “refiner’s syrup.” I don’t even know what the hell that is, but it’s probably not what I want for breakfast, unless I’m aiming to put the “refiner’s” kids through college! (Or the endocrinologist’s kids…or the bariatric surgeon’s…) Just in case the asparagus example didn’t quite hammer it home, let’s see how much green bell pepper you could snarf down to max out at 88 grams of carbs. About 1760 grams, or 3.88 lbs. Almost four pounds of green pepper! Kudos, General Mills, for having the manufacturing efficiencies in place to load that equivalent of starch, sucrose, glucose, and fructose into 110 grams of food. (And lets not forget that on top of all the added sugar, this thing also contains raisins and dates.)

We’ve talked about the effect of excessive carbohydrate consumption on our hormonal state, and how this affects the way we partition fuels, yes? So now you can see why all the poor suckers who are wolfing down these low-fat, whole-grain, high-fiber, blood sugar A-bombs are shooting themselves in the not-yet-amputated-diabetic foot at every turn. (Was that a little too much? Sorry. Guess that’s the kind of mood this effing shite stuff puts me in.) This stuff would be bad at any time of day, but it’s probably worst consumed first thing in the morning. Remember how we said that when you first wake up, even if you had a high-carb late night snack, by the time you get up in the morning, your blood glucose is back to a nice, low-ish baseline, and your insulin levels are also back to a nice, low-ish baseline? (Assuming you are not already a type-2 diabetic, in which case your fasting glucose and insulin are likely always a little elevated.) Tell me WHY, then, a breakfast of almost pure carbohydrate, with practically no protein and no fat, would be a good way to start the day. This is a one-way ticket onto the blood sugar merry-go-round, and you will be up and down, up and down, all day long.

Screw it. Go for the eggs and sausages. And save me some, while you’re at it. I’ll bring the bacon. (Just as long as someone brings the coffee, too.)

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. This reminds me of the Calvin and Hobbes comics, in which Calvin's favorite cereal was called "chocolate frosted sugar bombs." I'd love to have bacon everyday for breakfast but it'll be a while until I can afford that much at $20 a pound for the pasture-raised stuff.

    1. Yes! Chocolate frosted sugar bombs...love me some Calvin & Hobbes. :)

  2. My traditional Italian family refers to cereal as 'dog food'. It isn't an actual meal to them and they'd never serve it to a child, EVER. ... But on the other hand, we all do eat plenty of carbs in other forms!

    Whole grains get a bad rap. Many of us need some starch for satiety--I'm one of them. I get gastritis if I don't include some starch in my diet, and my athletic performance and health suffer. I wind up bloated, tired, and insatiably hungry when I attempt to replace starchy carbs with fibrous carbs and more fats. You know, that awful full-but--hungry feeling? So I try not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to whole grains and other complex carbs. (I find grain foods more satiating than potatoes, actually).

    Cereal has the particular additional problem of being DRY. Because it's drained of water content, which most whole foods have, it's not as filling. That's true of processed food in general, btw.