Myths and truths about cereals

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Bowl of cereals

Cereals are an important category of plants grown for human and animal nutrition. Usually, when we talk about cereals, we mean grains. The main ones are wheat, rye, barley, oats, rice, millet and corn.

The grain of wheat consists of three parts. The innermost part – about 3% – is the sprout (nucleus or embryo) which contains proteins, B vitamins, antioxidants and minerals such as e.g. magnesium. Outside of this is starchy endosperm – about 80-85% which contains mainly carbohydrates, B vitamins and proteins. The outer part is called bran or bark and is rich in fiber, B vitamins and trace elements – about 12-17%. To be defined as “whole grain” a cereal must maintain the same proportions of its ingredients (germ, endosperm, bran) as those present in the intact seed.

Below are two truths and two myths about cereals.

Processed cereals have fewer nutrients

Truth. Cereals, in their natural form, are a rich source of carbohydrates but also contain protein, B vitamins and trace elements. It is also a rich source of phytochemicals and fiber (both soluble and insoluble). The most beneficial part of the seed is considered to be the bran, followed by the sprout. However, the processing that takes place removes most of the nutrients and so most processed cereals are primarily a source of carbohydrates and less of other nutrients.

When cereals are processed to make “white” products such as bread, rice and pasta, the seeds are ground to remove bran and germ. This results in a finer texture and improved flour life. However, the fiber and other bioactive compounds present in bran and germ are removed. The endosperm that is the starchy part of the grain may contain proteins, β-glucans, carotenoids, selenium, B vitamins, vitamin E and flavonoids [1] but many nutrients have been removed. Whole grain foods contain up to 75% more nutrients.

Wheat and barley are about the same seeds

Myth. The macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, fats) may be about the same in these two cereals but there is a significant difference in fiber. In the case of wheat, white flour contains only the endosperm components while wholemeal flour contains all parts of the seed. But the barley used in cooking is often in a form that contains all the parts of the intact grain, although the bran may have been removed. However, wheat loses significant amounts of fiber during milling. 100 grams of whole wheat flour have 10-11 g. fiber while white flour has 2.7 g. fiber. The same amount of barley usually has 15-17 g. fiber. This is a significant difference as fiber plays an important role in health [2].

Some cereal products may have too much sugar and salt

Truth. Breakfast cereals are available as healthy with health claims such as “low fat” and “whole grain”. But they often have too much sugar and salt. Added sugar contributes to chronic diseases while much of this sugar comes from processed foods. Breakfast cereals can be high in sugar – most cereals cite sugar as their second or third ingredient. Excessive sugar consumption can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. If you eat breakfast cereal, read the list of its ingredients. Good cereals are high in fiber and low in sugar.

Adding salt is also a problem. Although some breakfast cereal companies have reduced their salt content in recent years, one can find huge differences. One study found that one product contained 1.13 g. sodium per 100 g. weight while another only 0.34 gr. Some cornflakes also contain more salt than seawater. Bread and other baked goods can also contain a lot of salt. A study by the University of Crete showed that 40% of the salt consumed in Greece comes from bread.

Cereals are not really a healthy food

Myth. This is not the case with whole grains. There is growing evidence from epidemiological studies that regular consumption of whole grain products as part of a healthy diet can help reduce the risk of many common diseases. In 2012, a meta-analysis concluded that people who regularly consumed whole grains, from 3 to 5 servings per day (1 serving is 16 g) have a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes (26% lower risk), cardiovascular disease (21% lower risk) and reduced weight gain [3]. Similarly, the risk of certain types of cancer of the digestive system, such as colon cancer, can be reduced by 20% for every 3 servings of whole grains per day [4].

There is, however, an exception. In the case of rice, paddy rice is considered “problematic” even though it has more nutrients than peeled rice. The reason is that rice can naturally contain significant amounts of arsenic [5], a poison that accumulates mainly on the outside. This issue is especially important for baby foods that contain rice.

At you will find a variety of cereals!


  1. Healthgrain Forum (2011).
  2. Health benefits of dietary fiber.
  3. Greater whole-grain intake is associated with lower risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and weight gain. 
  4. Dietary fibre, whole grains, and risk of colorectal cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. British Medical Journal 10;343:d6617.
  5. Greatly enhanced arsenic shoot assimilation in rice leads to elevated grain levels compared to wheat and barley.



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