Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. When I go to bed at night, I know what I’m having for breakfast the next day (and I might be looking forward to it already). These days, my favorite breakfasts rotate between thick, Greek Yogurt-filled smoothies, almond butter on toast, and chia seed pudding. Five years ago, my favorite morning meals rotated between chocolate croissants, Kashi GoLean Crunch, and almond butter on toast (I like almond butter).
For me, breakfast is a good time to quell my sweet tooth with natural sugars, which is one reason I almost always start my day with fruit. Evidently, I am not the only one with a sweet tooth that roars in the morning. Breakfast foods are chocker block full of added sugars, from brown rice syrup to Sucralose, maltodextrin to high fructose corn syrup. This annoys me to no end, mostly because these sugary foods are wrapped in healthy seeming packaging. If I wanted to eat nothing but flour and sugar for breakfast, I’d just have a pancake, thanks.
When shopping for breakfast foods, the first thing to watch out for are added sugars. Buy unsweetened foods and add the sweetness in yourself—I slather my Greek yogurt in honey, but I know I’m consuming less sugar (and chemicals) than if I were eating honey-flavored Greek yogurt. Fiber and protein will help keep you full until lunch, both of which are found in fresh fruits and whole grains, but not in fruit-flavored foods and ultra-processed corn or wheat.
Trader Joe’s Low-Fat Blueberry Cereal Bars
The first thing I look for on any breakfast food is how high up sugar is on the ingredient label. Organic evaporated cane juice is the first ingredient in the blueberry filling. Overall, I count six different kinds of sugar scattered throughout, not to mention several emulsifiers, like soy lecithin, gums and thickeners, as well as “natural flavors.”
Here’s what the Center for the Science in the Public Interest‘s Chemical Cuisine has to say about natural & artificial flavors: “Hundreds of chemicals are used to mimic natural flavors; many may be used in a single flavoring, such as for cherry soda. Most flavoring chemicals also occur in nature and are probably safe, but they are used almost exclusively in junk foods. Their use indicates that the real thing (often fruit) has been left out. Companies keep the identity of artificial (and natural) flavorings a deep secret and are not required to list them on food labels. That’s unfortunate, because some people may be sensitive to certain flavoring ingredients, such as MSG or HVP.”
Fiber One Honey Clusters
Okay, they’re honey clusters, but it’s Fiber One. It can’t be that bad, right? I like how many whole grains are listed on the label—that’s where the fiber comes from—but I don’t like seeing a half dozen different kinds of sugar, not including corn starch. This, in my mind, is one of the worst offenders: A cereal that seems healthy & virtuous, but is in fact full of sugar. I’m looking at you, too, Grape Nuts.
Grape Nuts were the original healthy cereal. Invented by C.W. Post in 1897, Grape Nuts offered “health and vitality”—they would “fill you up not out.” Today, the second ingredient is sugar—not exactly the brain food originally promised by Post. That said, apart from the sugar (in its many incarnations) this is a fairly reasonable ingredient label—although still processed. (Tapioca syrup, anyone?)
The only ingredient I didn’t know was Inulin, so I turned to CSPI’s Chemical Cuisine: “Inulin is a naturally occurring soluble fiber that is found in a variety of plants. It doesn’t raise blood sugar levels, so it may help people with diabetes. It also stimulates the growth of beneficial bacteria in the large intestine. However, because it is a purified fiber, it doesn’t come with the various vitamins and minerals that accompany the dietary fiber that one gets from whole foods.”
Trader Joe’s Fruity O’s
No. I did not expect purple- and 0range-colored air-extruded Os to be unprocessed. And indeed, they are not—not even close. It’s simply worth noting that simply because something wears a Trader Joe’s brand does not mean it’s healthy or free of weird ingredients.
Trader Joe’s Golden Roasted Milled Flax Seed
Trader Joe’s Golden Roasted Milled Flax Seed was the food that foiled my first attempt at unprocessed eating. I didn’t think to look at the ingredient label because, well, it’s flax seed. The spinach of breakfast confections. Unfortunately, this particular variety of flax seed is like spinach sautéed in maple syrup.
Back to Chemical Cuisine: “Maltodextrin is made from starch and consists of short chains of glucose molecules. Normal maltodextrins are easily digested and absorbed by the body. But companies also use ‘resistant maltodextrin’ to stimulate dietary fiber. That form of maltodextrin is made by treating starch with enzymes, heat, or acids and cannot be broken down by digestive enzymes. That makes the additive an ‘isolated fiber.’ Resistant maltodextrin may help lower blood sugar levels, but don’t help prevent constipation.”
I don’t mean to be crude, and I don’t know if the maltodextrin included in this milled roasted flax seed is of the “resistant variety,” but if so, it seems to negate the reason one might be eating flax seed in the first place.
Post Shredded Wheat
I was pleasantly surprised by Shredded Wheat. It’s not the most exciting cereal on the shelf, but add some sweet almond milk or yogurt and honey, and you’ve got yourself a totally unprocessed breakfast. Why doesn’t Post invest some marketing money into revamping that sad brown box?
Quaker Strawberries and Cream Instant Oatmeal
The fruit chunks in this so-called strawberry oatmeal? Are apples. Also, there is no cream—there is a creaming agent.
I understand the appeal of instant oatmeal, of ripping open a package, adding water, and finding breakfast. But the thing is, most oatmeal, even the kind that doesn’t come in a package along with two dozen other ingredients, is nearly instant. (I couldn’t find them on this trip, but I have seen rolled oats sold in the freezer aisle and wondered who decided that defrosting frozen oats was easier than microwaving their raw counterpart?)
Oatmeal is also so easy to make yourself, from scratch, and totally unprocessed. They are the perfect template for your culinary cravings. Add honey and cinnamon and water and stir over the stovetop. Slice a banana on top; sprinkle blueberries. I’ve made peanut butter-and-jelly oatmeal; pumpkin and spice oatmeal; cold overnight oats with maple syrup; chia seed pudding with oats. Oats are like the little black dress of breakfast—they go with everything (and they are so very flattering!)
Back to that ingredient label. In Chemical Cuisine: “Red 40 is the most widely used food dye, but the key mouse tests were flawed and inconclusive. An FDA review committee acknowledged problems, but said that evidence of harm was not ‘consistent’ or ‘substantial.’ Red 40 can cause allergy-like reactions. Like other dyes, Red 40 is used mainly junk foods.”
Bob’s Red Mill Rolled Oats
Ahhh. I love when the word “Ingredient” is singular.