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What is iron-fortified cereal and do I need it?

The cereal aisle of the grocery store is ablaze with the announcements of fortified cereals. The bright colors attract children; the promise of an easy, healthy breakfast attracts adults. However, is it really good for you?

It does depend on which cereal you choose and what the manufacturer chose to fortify it with. It may also depend on which country you live in. Some countries require certain vitamins to be added to breakfast cereals. Most commonly that is folic acid.

It is also fairly common for those of us who live in fast paced environments to have a diet lacking in vital nutrients. Even minor drops in these vitamins and minerals can have long lasting, unpleasant results. That is why our food gets fortified. (1) (2)

Why iron?

Our blood is red because it is largely made up of iron. Without adequate iron intake, we become anemic. 

This causes lethargy and lowers our immune system. Our blood can’t carry oxygen as well without adequate iron and our organs suffer.

Iron is particularly important for girls and women between menarche and menopause. It is regularly shed unless she is pregnant. 

That brings on a whole new set of reasons for needing iron and fortified cereals. (3)


What cereals are high in iron?

There are several parts to answering this question. The first is to understand what cereal actually is. Most people think of cereal as something that comes in a box. 

You pour it into a bowl, splash in some form of milk and voila!

Cereal the breakfast food got its name from the fact that cereal means grain. The beginning of any box of cereal had to grow, be ground and made into what we eat. Some cereals don’t grind the grain. Muesli is like that. 

Most boxed cereals, however, have a step prior to turning it into your breakfast. The grain is stripped of its bran, so it will be easier to eat and tastier to the consumer. When it’s stripped of the bran, almost all of the nutritional value is stripped. That’s why there are added nutrients in the cereal.

The next part of the answer to the question is which whole grains have the highest amount of iron? There are thirteen of them that are particularly high, although some of them have to be uncooked to retain the iron content.

Of those commonly consumed, oats have the highest amount. They are also considered a heart healthy choice because of the cholesterol lowering benefit of the grain. 

Naturally, whole oats are best. Wheat is also on the list, placing fourth. Surprisingly, uncooked amaranth is at the top.

The last part of the answer to this question is which one you can buy at the store has the most. If the cereal is made from oats, it will most likely have the most. That means oatmeal, Cheerios and other cereals that have that ingredient are highest.

There is a lot more to choosing a breakfast cereal, though. Some are simpler to make than others. As an example, do you want hot cereal or cold cereal? 

Do you want to make it from scratch or buy it already made? What else is in the cereal?

Some of us are not allowed to cook until at least one cup of coffee is consumed. For us, that means store bought is best. It’s fairly easy to zap a packet of oatmeal or pour cereal and milk into a bowl. Others may not have time or lack the inclination. (4) (5)

How do I choose?

There are two very important lists on prepackaged foods. When looking for the iron fortified cereal, the nutrition label is a good place to start. 

Most cereals, especially those that tout their high iron content, will give a percentage of the recommended daily allowances for vitamins and minerals.

The RDA for iron is highest for pregnant women. They need twenty seven milligrams of iron during gestation. Girls from fourteen to eighteen need fifteen and those over nineteen and over need eighteen milligrams until menopause. Men and women past menopause need eight.

What that translates to when looking at the nutrition label is to skip the percentage. Look for the actual number. There is more to it than that; the percentage is based on a two thousand calorie diet. Not all of us consume two thousand calories a day.

There are other vitamins and minerals on the nutrition label and they are also important. Vitamins A and C as well as zinc and calcium help the body to absorb the iron. Without them, the body won’t absorb the iron as well no matter how much is in it.

The breakfast cereal may not have all of those, but milk has calcium. When choosing what to pour over the cereal, there are two things to think about. What does it bring to your breakfast and how much fat is in it. Plant based “milk” often has its own group of nutrients.

You may wonder why fat is mentioned. Most of us are trained to think of fat as evil. We buy nonfat everything if we can. However, vitamins like A are fat soluble. If fat isn’t consumed with them then they aren’t digested. They go right through.

The next list on the cereal box is equally important. That’s the ingredient list. This is usually fine print and easily ignored by most consumers. Don’t fall for it; you need to have this information to make a good decision about whether or not to buy the product.

The first ingredient of any product is what it has the most of. It goes in descending order, but even that is a bit hard to interpret. As an example, sugar may not be high on the list, but the various types of sugar added together could place it first or second. If it ends in –ose, it’s sugar.

There is a reason for using sugar as an example. The smaller the amount of added sugar the better. Some sugars are safer than others. If it says “high fructose corn syrup” put it back on the shelf and move on to a different box. 

The best breakfast cereals will list at least one whole grain first on the list. Two or more whole grains may be even better. Of all cereal brands, those containing whole oats are the best. Whole grain wheat is also high in natural iron, so fortification goes further.

If the word flour or wheat flour are first, chances are good that it is refined white flour, not a whole grain. Refined carbohydrates are empty calories that pack on the pounds. They, like those that contain too much sugar, are cereals to avoid.

Which iron fortified hot cereal is best?

Whole grain oats are the best hot cereal. Steel cut oats are also a good choice. There are some that are quick to cook, just zap them in the microwave for two and a half minutes. The closer it is to what it looked like when it came off the grain stalk the better.

If oats can’t or won’t be eaten, there are two other hot cereals. These cereals are more refined although one still gets high marks on 

Malt o meal is considered a good, low fat choice for a hot cereal and it contains ninety six percent of the daily requirements for iron.

Cream of wheat is another, though not necessarily as good choice. There are some differences between them. When choosing any of these cereals, again, watch the sugar count. Too much sugar is still going to be too much.

What iron fortified cold cereal is best?

Here it is a matter of personal taste and preference as well as making sure that the whole grains are in there. A lot of people like the Kashi line of cereals. Others find it a little hard on their teeth unless it is cooked.

There is something positive to be said about some of the whole grain cereals with fruits and nuts in them. These provide additional sources of nutrients, some of which are needed to help absorb the iron. In our house, cranberries and almonds are favorites.

Cheerios are probably the best known brand of iron fortified breakfast cereal. The company has FDA approval to state that it lowers the risk of heart disease, due to the oat content of the products. This is extremely rare for any food product.

What about the kids?

Taking a child down the cereal aisle is almost as bad as taking one down the candy aisle. They naturally gravitate to the cute figures and the sugary flavors. These cereals are seldom whole grain, full of sugar and they use artificial colors and flavors.

That doesn’t mean that all kids’ cereals are bad. However, there are some rules to look for. The first one is sugar. If there is more than nine grams total in a serving, the box goes back on the shelf. Even too much dried fruit can be a problem.

The second is fiber content. Getting a child to eat enough fiber can be a trying task for a parent (or grandparent). Having it conveniently in a breakfast cereal they willingly eat is a good way to get a jump start on that.

The third is to take a look at the serving size. Nine grams of sugar in a half a cup of cereal is a lot more than the same amount in a serving of a cup and a half. Not all children are full on a half a cup of cereal. Not all of them can eat a cup and a half, either. 

When it comes to the choice of hot or cold, that will also depend on some factors. Hot cereal is wonderful on a cold, snowy morning. Cold cereal works well on a hot, humid morning. Having something hot in the stomach before heading out to school can be a good thing in winter.

Other considerations are the child’s age and personal preferences. Some children just plain don’t like hot cereal. Young children would do better with lukewarm ground cereals. Babies generally start out eating barley cereal when they start on solid foods.


Necessary information

The only claim the USFDA allows is the one that oats can help lower the risk of heart disease. The other information is gathered from studies and for your use only. The sites the information came from are listed below in resources.

Making a drastic change to your diet may come at a cost. It is wise to consult with both the doctor and the pharmacist before making huge dietary changes. Some things may not be beneficial due to medications or medical conditions.

If the doctor recommends a nutritionist or dietician, these are good options. They can help discuss the changes, serving sizes and other ways of boosting the nutrition benefits of the foods you eat. Some may involve supplements, but clear those with the doctor and pharmacist.

There may be a possibility of food allergies in some people. If you haven’t been tested and suspect an allergy, it may be wise to have it done. Besides gluten, there are a number of components in breakfast cereals that could cause a reaction.

If you are asthmatic there are two more things to watch out for. Cereals that have a lot of dust can cause issues if the dust is inhaled. It is better to choose those that have little to no dust or flour loose in the package.

The other things to watch out for are sulfites, bisulfites and meta bisulfites. These related chemicals are sometimes in the fruits in cereals that contain them. 

They may also be used as preservatives. Not all asthmatics are allergic to them, but those that are could wind up in trouble.

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