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High-protein cereals: A Healthier Breakfast Alternative?

Many adults and children start their mornings the same way – by grabbing a bowl, filling it with their favorite cereal and topping it off with milk. Before milk enters the equation, breakfast cereals alone don't contain much protein to be considered a balanced breakfast. 

Instead of turning to eggs and other processed meats for protein sources at breakfast, some consumers have ventured into the world of high-protein cereals as an alternative. This blog will explore this growing market and expand on the possible health benefits.

Is cereal high in protein?

While all breakfast cereals aren’t created equal, they typically have similar core ingredients – some type of grain, a sweetener and other add-ons for texture such as nuts, seeds or dried fruit. 

Carbohydrates are usually the first thing that comes to mind with grains, but they do contain some protein. Grains come from plants, and all plants contain some type of protein. Albumins, globulins, prolamins and glutelins are the most common types of plant proteins.

However, there is one thing to consider about protein in whole grains: With the exception of quinoa and amaranth, whole grains aren’t complete proteins because they don’t contain as many amino acids as those found in animal proteins.

Plus, some cereals use refined flour (listed on ingredients as “enriched wheat flour” or “wheat flour”), a manufacturing process that strips proteins and other nutrients from the germ (inner, nutritious layer) and bran (outer layer) to leave white flour.

To make up for the lost protein in the refining process, some cereals add protein back using soy protein isolate. The process uses soybeans that are stripped of fatty acids, fiber and other nutrients with just the protein remaining, hence the name isolate.

Protein in cereal

Nearly all cereal has fiber, but not all types are high in protein. Most traditional breakfast cereals have anywhere from 2 to 7 grams of protein per serving. Some examples include:

  • Special K (7 grams)
  • Shredded Wheat (7 grams)
  • Raisin Bran (5 grams)
  • Cheerios (3 grams)
  • Rice Krispies (3 grams)
  • Corn Flakes (3 grams)
  • Honey Bunches of Oats (3 grams)
  • Total (2 grams)

Of the whole grains used in cereal, oats, wheat and quinoa – all ingredients used in cereals – contain at least 6 grams of protein per ½ cup uncooked.

What are high-protein cereals?

Deciphering cereal labels can be difficult to interpret for even the most savvy consumer. Sugary children’s cereal is marketed as using whole grains to make them seem better for you and so-called healthy options will deceptively add clusters or chocolate chunks to draw in a broader audience.

The one common theme most cereals have is they’re not as satiating. Yes, they have some fiber and protein, but the added sugars cause a spike in blood sugar (glucose) levels that won’t leave you satisfied. 

With high-protein cereals, whole grains, nuts, seeds or other proteins are added to help keep you full longer. Other ingredients are less common in everyday foods. Depending on the brand, you may find pea protein, lentil protein, chickpea flour, milk protein isolate, whey protein isolate and soy protein isolate on the labels.

Most high-protein cereals have at least 10 grams of protein per serving, which is anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of the recommended daily intake – you should eat about 0.36 grams of protein per every pound.

Types of high-protein cereals

Magic Spoon is among the most notable high-protein cereals, as the company claims its cereal tastes like the versions you had growing up without the extra calories and sugar. Each 1-cup serving has 13 or 14 grams of protein (depending on flavor) from a milk protein blend and is sweetened with monk fruit extract and allulose, a sugar found in raisins and figs. Price point is the main drawback, as a single box costs around $11, nearly three times as much as many types of cereal.

Similar to Magic Spoon in the boutique cereal category, Catalina Crunch Cinnamon Toast is marketed as a grown-up, protein-packed version of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. The cereal’s base is made from pea protein, potato fiber and corn fiber to give it 11 grams of protein per serving. It also has 0 grams of sugar, as it’s sweetened with stevia extract and monk fruit extract.

Other more mainstream options include Post’s Premier Protein line. The berry almond flavor has 10 grams of protein per half cup with just 2 grams of added sugar. Ingredients include wheat gluten, wheat protein isolate and pea protein concentrate. Special K Protein, with 15 grams of protein per 1 ⅓ cup serving coming from soy protein isolate, is another popular option. While not a sugar bomb, it still has 8 grams of added sugar per half cup. 

Two brands – Kodiak Cakes and Quaker – offer instant protein oatmeal that contains whey protein. A serving boasts 14 grams of protein but also has 12 grams of added sugar due to flavors such as chocolate chip, banana nut or maple and brown sugar. Quaker, meanwhile, has 10 grams of protein per serving with 12 grams of added sugar.

Whenever shopping for cereal, remember to pay close attention to the serving size. Brands often alter serving sizes for marketing purposes. For example, Premier Protein’s packaging boasts 20 grams of protein per 1-cup serving. However, most other cereals include nutritional information for ½-cup size servings. In other words, the packaging may lure you into buying the box advertising 20 grams of protein when an alternative that has 10 grams of protein per ½ cup is the same.

What to look for in high-protein cereals

Each brand of high-protein cereal is different in terms of protein sources, sweeteners and other added ingredients. That said, here is a general overview of what to look for at the grocery stores or in your online shopping cart.

Low sugar: Cereal is far from healthy, with some brands containing as much added sugars as some candy bars. Despite some options being high in fiber and containing whole grains, added sugar is still added sugar. Try and limit added sugar levels to 6 or 7 grams per serving (most traditional cereals have at least 10 grams).

High in fiber: You need 25 to 30 grams of dietary fiber per day, so your cereal choice should at least have 20 percent of that number.

Protein: There isn’t a magic number of how much protein your cereal needs, but strive for at least 8 grams per serving

Minimal ingredients: If you can’t understand the ingredient list, then chances are you shouldn’t buy a product. Look for cereals without many ingredients. Plus, you should avoid artificial colors and sweeteners.

Whole grains: This goes without saying, but the best cereals for you contain whole grains that aren’t stripped of any nutrients. 

The bottom line

Cereal became so mainstream in American culture due to marketing blitzes, so it’s no surprise high-protein cereals are now being marketed as a way to boost your protein intake at breakfast time.

Sure, some of these cereals tackle that goal while providing low-sugar or no-sugar options. But at what cost? Some boxes of high-protein cereals can set you back upwards of $10.

Instead, try something like shredded wheat as an alternative if you’re still in the mood for cereal. Shredded wheat has 7 grams of protein, 7 grams of fiber and 0 grams of added sugar per serving. If you’re worried about the taste, add fresh fruit such as strawberries and bananas to improve the flavor.

Or skip cereal altogether and make a piece of avocado toast on wheat bread. A slice of wheat bread doesn’t quite have as much protein (4 grams), but the unsaturated fats from avocado slices make it a balanced meal of carbs, fats and protein.

Additional ways to include protein in cereal

You can also boost the protein amount in your bowl of cereal by mixing in protein-packed ingredients. Many of these foods can be bought in bulk and stored in your pantry.  Try any of the following options, including high-protein alternatives to cow’s milk.

Peanut butter: 4 g protein per tablespoon

Oats: 2.5 g protein per tablespoon

Chia seeds: 3 g protein per tablespoon

Flax seeds: 2 g protein per tablespoon

Pea milk: 8 g protein per cup

Unsweetened soy milk: 7 g protein per cup


Visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog for more lifestyle, wellness and food content.


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