Cereal

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 29 current accounts.

We also look at palm oil, GMOs,sugar, shine the spotlight on Kellogg's and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

What to buy

What to look for when buying breakfast cereals:

  • Is it Fairtrade? From the dried fruit to the palm oil, many of the ingredients used in cereal are linked to serious exploitation of workers’ rights. As always, buying Fairtrade certified products is the simplest method of ensuring you vote for improving workers’ rights standards.

  • Is it organic? Made from petroleum, chemical pesticides threaten bee populations, contaminate water sources, and cause large-scale destruction of habitats. Look for organic to avoid ingredients grown with these chemicals.

  • Do you need to buy it? It is easy to make cereals at home, particularly muesli and granola, if you want full control of what goes into your morning bowl. Making your own also lets you decide the amount of added sugar that goes in...

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What avoid when buying breakfast cereals:

  • Does it contain palm oil? At its most unsustainable, palm oil is linked to massive deforestation and serious violations of human rights. Look for brands that commit to sourcing palm oil sustainably or avoid it completely.

  • Is it packed full of sugar? Avoid those that are high in sugar (22.5 g of sugar per 100g) which should be highlighted in red on the front of pack traffic light label.

  • Is it funding GMOs? Genetically modified seeds and crops bind growers to powerful multinationals producing agricultural chemicals. These companies have been criticised for seriously exploiting small-scale farmers. Look for organic to be sure that you are avoiding GMOs.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20)

Our Analysis

This guide covers all-ready-made cereals and porridge oats that can be eaten as they come, not individual ingredients like flakes that can be put together to make a cereal.

For a rating of supermarket own brands, see our separate supermarkets guide

Image: bowl of cereal

Once upon a time, simple cereal grains, cooked either as porridge or bread, were the staples of breakfast in the UK and around the world. But, in the last hundred years or so, we have succumbed to an American temperance movement invention and today the British and the Irish are the largest eaters of puffed, flaked, flavoured, shaped, sugared, salted and extruded cereals in the world.

Most of the health benefits claimed for cereals depend on fortifications to replace the nutrients stripped away by the manufacturing process. As long ago as the 1970s, it was recognised that most breakfast cereals were empty calories. An advisor to President Nixon testified that rats fed a diet of ground-up cereal boxes with sugar and milk were healthier than rats fed the cereal itself!

Palm Oil

If managed well, palm oil can be both productive and sustainable. With this in mind, companies can get our best rating either by being palm oil free, or by using best practices in their sourcing.

Generally best practice will mean using only RSPO certified sources. More and more companies are relying on this option. Unfortunately, however, RSPO sourcing has proved to be far from infallible. Many of the companies that have best practice in theory – and have therefore received our own best rating – face serious external criticisms for ongoing deforestation and human rights abuses in their palm oil supply chains. These companies have been highlighted in red in the table below. General Mills and PepsiCo both received our best rating, but have lost full marks under Palm Oil for such external criticisms.

Image: palm oil plantation
Palm oil estate in Indonesia

Fortunately, it is easy to avoid these companies when buying breakfast cereals. Muesli and oats are generally palm oil free, and there are also lots of organic and / or Fairtrade options if you are after another cereal variety.

Doves Farm was one such company; it stated on its website, “The Palm Oil used in our products is responsibly sourced from an organic supplier in Colombia. It is fully traceable, GMO-Free and, being produced in South America, is in no way implicated in the destruction of Orangutan and other wildlife habitats that is occurring in Southeast Asia.”

 BEST (14-20)  

MIDDLE (8-13) 

 WORST (0-7) 

Palm-oil free companies:

Rude Health

MOMA

Infinity Foods

Hodmedod’s

Uses palm oil:

Alara

Essential Trading

Doves Farm

General Mill’s (50% of Nestlé Cereals)

Kellogg’s

Koninklijke Wessanen (Kallo, Whole Earth)

Morning Foods (Mornflake)

PepsiCo

Suma

Traidcraft

Windmill Organics (BiOFAIR, Amisa, Biona)

 

Garfield Weston (Jordans, Dorset)

Nestlé

Eat Natural

Raisio Oyj

Post Holdings (Weetabix)

However, General Mills, Kellogg's and PepisCo still lost a full mark under Palm Oil, for external criticisms of their palm oil supply chains, and are therefore ones that we would not recommend.

Palm oil free cereals

Of the companies that get our best rating, the following of their products were palm oil free:

  • Rude Health - all cereals
  • MOMA - all cereals
  • Infinity Foods - all cereals
  • Hodmedod's - all cereals
  • Alara - all cereals
  • Essential - all cereals
  • Doves Farm - all Freee gluten free cereals
  • Kallo - all cereals
  • Whole Earth - Cornflakes, Maple Frosted Flakes, Muesli
  • Mornflakes - all oats and mueslis
  • Suma - De Luxe, Fruit Burst, Multigrain gluten free, Nutty Crunch, Simple Base and Swiss Twist mueslis; Berry Burst, Cacoa Crumble, Nutty Crumble granolas
  • Traidcraft - GeoMuesli Fruit & Nut
  • Amisa - all cereals except Spelt Crunchy
  • Biona - Amaranth Pops, Honey Hazel Granola, Amaranth Wild Berry Muesli, Fruit Muesli
  • Biofair - Quinoa Pops

GMOs

GMOs are a big issue for this industry. They cannot be grown in the UK and must be labelled on food packaging in the UK if the GMO content is above 0.9%. But lots of the multinationals in this industry also do business in markets where they are far less regulated, for example the USA.

In 2016, the Environmental Working Group reported that the food industry in the USA had spent $101 million in the previous year on lobbying to avert GMO labelling laws. Nestlé, Kellogg’s, PepsiCo, and General Mills all appeared on the list of companies involved, and therefore all lost half a mark under Political Activities and Controversial Technology, for their involvement in lobbying and support for GMOs.

Many of these companies are also members of the Grocery Manufacturers’ Association (GMA), which has received a lot of bad press in the US for the same reason. The industry group spent nearly $400 million over four years to defeat mandatory GMO labelling laws, and in 2016 faced a boycott call from the Organic Consumer’s Association. The boycott focussed on the 20 biggest members of the GMA, which included Nestlé, Kellogg’s, PepsiCo, and General Mills. That boycott no longer appears to be active but GMO-Free USA has launched a boycott call against Kellogg’s

In fact, many of the companies in this guide stated that their products for sale in the USA contained GMOs. These were: Garfield Weston Foundation (owner of Dorset and Jordans); General Mills (which owns 50% of Nestlé cereals); Nestlé (which owns the other 50% of Nestlé cereals); Kellogg’s and Pepsico (which owns Quakers, Oatso and Scott’s cereals). All of these companies except PepsiCo had actually published a pro-GMO policy on their websites.

Furthermore, in 2016, a pesticide that is used heavily on GM crops was found in cereals sold in the US. Products such as Cheerios, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Doritos crisps and Ritz crackers were found to have traces of glyphosate – identified by the World Health Organisation as a 'probable human carcinogen' and a widely used weedkiller used on commercially genetically modified (GM) crops. Glyphosate is the world's most widely used herbicide and is the key ingredient in GM soya and corn crops.

70% of animal feed in the EU is also estimated to be from GMO sources. In the UK, we could be eating unlabelled animal products (meat, milk and eggs) from animals fed on GMOs.  There is no requirement to label GMO-fed animal products. All companies using animal products not marked as organic therefore also lost half a mark in the Controversial Technology category.

Anti-social finance

There is a clear divide in this industry between those companies that appear to be paying their taxes, and those that don’t, with just one company receiving our middle rating. Unsurprisingly, the dividing line appeared to be between the big multinationals and the small cereal companies, often registered in the UK.

Companies that got a worst rating for likely use of tax avoidance strategies lost a whole mark under Anti-Social Finance, and those that got a middle lost half a mark.

 Best   Middle   Worst 
Alara Wholefoods, Dove Farm Foods, Eat Natural, Infinity Foods Co-operative, Essential Trading, MOMA Foods, Morning Foods, Raisio Oyj (Honey Monster), Rude Health, Triangle Wholefoods and Windmill Organics                       Post Holdings Garfield Weston Foundation, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Koninklijke Wessenan, Nestlé and PepsiCo

Sugar

The amount of sugar in many cereal brands means that we could be getting a substantial part of our daily sugar allowance in the very first meal of the day. Cereals are promoted as healthy foods but some products are on the wrong shelf and should be among the biscuits.

The Government has set a target of slashing the sugar in our food by 20% by 2020.

The NHS recommends the following maximum daily intakes of sugar:

  • 30g (7 teaspoons) for those aged 11 and over.
  • 24g (6 teaspoons) for children aged 7 to 10
  • 19g (5 teaspoons) for children aged 4 to 6

The NHS has this advice:

"Read the nutritional information on food labels to see how much sugar the food contains.

The nearer to the beginning of the ingredient list the sugar is, the more sugar the product contains.

Look for the "carbohydrates (of which sugars)" figure in the nutrition label to see how much sugar the product contains for every 100g:

  • more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g is high
  • 5g of total sugars or less per 100g is low

If the amount of sugars per 100g is between these figures, it's a medium amount of sugars."

Brand sugar per portion  sugar per 100g 

Kellogg's Crunchy Nut cornflakes

11 (30g)

35

Kellogg's Frosties

11 (30g)

35

Biona fruit muesli

no info

34

Alpen Original muesli

9.5 (45g)

25

Eat Natural toasted muesli

12.2 (50g with s-s milk)

24.3

Honey Monster Puffs

6.6g (30g)

22

Alara Fair Trade muesli

no info

19.2

Traidcraft Geo fruit & nut muesli

13.5g (40g with s-s milk)

18.5

Nestle mulitgrain Cheerios

11 (30g with s-s milk)

18

Kellogg’s All Bran

7.2g (40g)

18

Essential classic muesli

no info

17

Kellogg's Coco Pops

5.1 (30g)

17

Waitrose Duchy Organic muesli

no info

16.3

Jordans Natural Muesli

no info

15.8

Suma deluxe muesli

no info

15.3

Amisa fruity oat muesli

no info

15

Infinity organic deluxe muesli

no info

12.3

Dorset Cereals Simply Delicious

no info

12.2

Quaker Oats oat muesli

no info

12

MOMA bircher muesli

5.9 (50g)

11.8

Hodmedod’s Quinoa Puffs

no info

8.7

Rude Health bircher muesli

4.9 (60g)

8.2

Kellogg’s Rice Krispies

2.4 (30g)

7.9

Mornflake crispy muesli

2.3 (45g)

5

Weetabix

no info

4.4

Whole Earth cornflakes

7.5 (30g with s-s milk)

4

Kallo puffed rice

6.4 (30g with s-s milk)

0.7

Doves Farm cornflakes

0.2g (30g)

0.7

Nestle Shredded Wheat

6.2 (45g with s-s milk)

0.7

Biofair quinoa pops

no info

0.1

As a comparison, McVities chocolate digestives have 29.5g of sugar per portion. 

As you can see from the table, most of the cereals fall into the medium amount of sugar bracket. But, even so, it is surprising to see that cereals that we might think of as a healthy option – mueslis and All Bran, for example – are in fact quite high in sugar.

When we last looked at the sugar in cereals in 2013, kids’ brand Kellogg’s Coco Pops had 35g of sugar per 100g but in 2018 Kellogg's slashed the sugar content by 40% to 17g. It has also cut the sugar in Rice Krispies by 20% from 10g per 100g to 7.9g. But unfortunately the reduction does not extend across all its cereals.

Last year, Kellogg’s said it would not reduce the sugar content of another of its kids brands, Frosties, and has rebranded it as an adult cereal despite keeping the Tony the Tiger cartoon character on the front of packets. Kellogg's said that the cartoon appealed to millenials and was an adult cartoon!

This shameless rebranding means Kellogg's may avoid being named and shamed by the government in 2020 when it targets kids’ brands that have not reduced the sugar content by 20%. Nestle said in 2017 that it would cut the sugar in all its cereals by 10% by the end of 2018 and it has started to do this.

    image: sugar

    Beware – Not all sugars are equal!

    The nutrition label referring to ‘total sugars’ but the majority of the sugars in cereals are derived from ‘free sugars’. Free or added sugars includes sugars that are added to food, as well as sugars that are naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates.

    Then there are naturally occurring sugars from milk products and whole fruit & vegetables. A product containing these type of sugars will be a healthier choice than one that contains lots of free sugars, even if the two products contain the same total amount of sugars.

    So health campaigners want companies to declare the amount of free sugars in their products. In the meantime, you can tell if the food contains lots of added sugars by checking the ingredients list and looking for ingredients such as ‘sugar’, ‘fruit juice concentrates’, ‘glucose-syrup’, ‘invert sugar syrup’, ‘golden syrup’ and ‘honey’. Avoid these and go for ones with whole fruits and, if you are not vegan, milk products.

    Sugar content highlights:

    • Frosties have more sugar in them than chocolate digestives
    • Plain porridge oats are low sugar (1g per 100g) but levels rocket for flavoured varieties like Oat So Simple Golden Syrup (17g per100g)
    • A 50g serving of Kellogg's Frosties or Crunchy Nut cornflakes contained nearly all of a child’s (5-10 years) guideline daily amount (GDA) of sugar and over half of an adult’s
    • Nutritional information per serving was also given inconsistently making it difficult to compare products i.e serving sizes, or whether they included milk.

     

      Which cereal has the best nutritional value?

      The British Heart Foundation ranked the most popular cereals from best to worst based on their nutritional value – in particular sugar, fibre content and salt. Here is their advice:

      1. Porridge – it’s wholegrain and especially good when it is made with low-fat milk or water and unsweetened.
      2. No added sugar or salt muesli – No added sugar muesli contains a mixture of  grains, fruit and nuts.
      3. Shredded whole wheat cereal – plain shredded whole wheat cereal with low-fat milk is the best choice of conventional breakfast cereals, because it doesn’t contain any added sugar or salt, and is high in fibre.
      4. Bran flakes – Wholegrain cereals like bran flakes, malted wheat cereal  and wheat biscuits are high in fibre and will also have sugar and salt added to them usually, so avoid adding any more sugar and opt for fruits or berries for sweetness.
      5. Cornflakes – Cereals like cornflakes or puffed rice served with low-fat milk – can be part of a healthy breakfast but are low in fibre so not as good a choice as a wholegrain cereal.
      6. Muesli with added sugar – Most people naturally believe muesli to be healthy, and it does have a lot to commend it, but if you don’t check that you’re buying one with no added sugar or salt it can contain almost as much sugar as a bowl of frosted flakes.
      7. Sugar-frosted cornflakes – Sugar-frosted cornflakes are high in sugar and low in  fibre as well as usually coming with added salt.  Sugar-frosted flakes are usually nutritionally similar to other sweetened cereals like chocolate rice cereals, or honey-nut coated cereals.
      8. Granola with dried fruit, nuts or seeds – This sounds healthy but isn’t, as it’s high in fat and sugar.
      9. Granola with chocolate – Granola with chocolate has all the same issues that regular granola has, in that it's high in fat and sugar, but with added chocolate - so even more fat and more sugar!

      Traffic light nutritional labelling

      At the moment the only mandatory nutritional labelling requirement is for pre-packaged food to have a nutritional table somewhere on the packaging.

      But colour-coded ‘traffic light’ labels right on the front of the pack means that users can easily see whether a product is high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) in total fat, saturates, sugars and salt. It is a scheme endorsed by health campaigners and the Department of Health. These labels make it very easy for consumers to interpret the information and make informed decisions. The colour-coded labelling scheme was set up in 2013 by the Department of Health and supported by various UK health charities (including Action on Sugar).

      But colour-coded front of pack labels are a voluntary scheme. It needs to be mandatory. Under European Union (EU) legislation, the UK Government can only make recommendations to industry on how to label their products. Perhaps in a post Brexit UK, this EU food law could be reviewed.

       

      Image: traffic light nutritional labelling

      What are the companies doing?

      Some branded companies use the government-recommended colour-coded labelling including: Alpen, Honey Monster (previously Sugar Puffs), Mornflake, Quaker Oats, Scott's and Weetabix. All of the nine top supermarkets have colour-coded front of pack labelling on their own-label breakfast cereals across their economy, standard and premium ranges.

      After a Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall recent campaign, Kellogg and Nestle said they would use traffic lights on their cereals in the UK. But a shop visit in Manchester in September 2018 found that Kellogg's were still not using them, but Nestle were.

      In fact, the Kellogg's UK website was the only website we found that did not display any nutritional information for specific products.

      Jordans were also not using colour-coded front of pack labels.

      Some perceived ‘healthy’ and ethical cereal brands failed to include any form of front of pack nutrition labelling at all, colour coded or otherwise Biofair, Biona, Amisa, Infinity, Suma, Kallo, Whole Earth, Eat Natural, Rude Health, Alara, Traidcraft, Doves Farm and Dorset Cereals.

      “Shoppers should be seeing red, and they would be if manufacturers used the correct labels! It’s scandalous that certain food manufacturers are still refusing to be transparent when it comes to front of pack nutrition labelling. If there is no front of pack label with one brand, shoppers should assume they are hiding something - so buy another brand instead.” - Katharine Jenner, Campaign Director of Action on Sugar and FoodSwitch UK.

      FoodSwitch app

      The FoodSwitch UK app scans the barcode using a smartphone camera and provides colour-coded nutrition information for over 100,000 packaged food and drinks, even if there is no colour coding on the pack itself, so that users can see whether a product is high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) in total fat, saturates, sugars and salt. It also provides a list of similar, healthier alternatives and includes a new filter, SugarSwitch, which enables users to search specifically for healthier alternatives that are lower in sugar.  

      Image: foodswitch app

      Surprisingly, breakfast cereal shoppers could save themselves a whopping 45 teaspoons of sugar per month (182g) if they had access to consistent front of pack labelling allowing them to make informed decisions and switch to a lower sugar cereal.

      The app, developed by leading UK nutrition research experts and led by The George Institute for Global Health in partnership with Consensus Action on Salt, Sugar & Health, carries no advertising and is supported by 16 health and charitable organisations including Public Health England, Stroke Association and Heart UK. There are five different filters to choose from, so whether you are looking to lower your blood pressure, reduce your saturated fat (saturates) and sugar intake, or cut back on your calories.

      FoodSwitch UK is available as a free, UK-only download from iTunes and Google Play.   

      Portion sizes

      Health critics have slammed the use of portion size, such as 30 or 40g, as a reference on nutrition labels, even those that are colour coded traffic lights. The drawback to using portion size is that these are often underestimated. 30g is not a very big or realistic portion – most people serve themselves more than this. Eat Natural and MOMA use a more realistic 50g whilst Rude Health uses 60g.

      Reference intake

      Nutrition labels, colour-coded and otherwise, usually say what % of an adult’s ‘reference intake’ a serving of cereal has for fats, saturates, sugars and salt. This is inappropriate when cereals are often eaten by children as well. It is even more inappropriate on cereals specifically aimed at children, like CocoPops and Rice Krispies.

      The great cereal rip off

      Less talked about than the health concerns associated with breakfast cereals is their inflated cost. Take a perfectly healthy grain that can be eaten as it is with nothing added, process it, add sugar and salt, package it and sell it to the consumer for twice the price – at least.

      A good like for like comparison is branded oats and branded oat cereal. Plain Quaker Oats are available on Asda’s website for 19.8p per 100g, Oatibix flakes (oat equivalent of Weetabix) comes in at a whopping 54.4p per 100g (and that’s a ‘reduced’ price) – over three times as much.

      Plastic packaging

      Most cereals come in a cardboard box with a thin, plastic bag inside usually made from polyethylene (HDPE). Though the cardboard is often made of recycled materials and is recyclable the liner bag may not be recyclable in your area.

      Other cereals, like mueslis, may come just in a plastic bag with no box. The plastic here will be thicker to minimise damage to the contents.

      Paper bags are almost always lined with plastic.

      Some plastics may claim to be made of bioplastic which is made from natural materials but not all of these materials are compostable at home and may need an industrial composting facility. The recycling people WRAP say that if bioplastic is not composted but put in with the recycling instead they can mess up the recycling stream. And if landfilled, they increase methane emissions. Look out for the European Bioplastics "Seedling" logo to make sure it’s compostable and ‘OK Compost Home’ certification logo to show it is compostable at home.

      Another way to minimise your packaging impact is to buy your cereals in bulk containers. Check out your nearest ‘weigh and save’ type facility, if you have one.

      Also, avoid cereals that are single portions, especially if they come in a plastic pot.

      What to pour on your cereal

      Most people choose milk of some variety. Have a look at our guides to dairy milk and non dairy milks like soya, oat and rice to see what we recommend that you tip over your chosen cereal.

      And if you are one of those people that likes fruit juice on your cereal, then check out our Fruit Juice guide too.

      Some people even like water on their cereal.

      DIY cereal

      If you’re getting frustrated by trying to avoid sugar-added brands, it is actually very easy to make your own at home.

      Muesli is just a raw mix of rolled whole grains, dried fruit, seeds, and nuts.

      Try: four parts grain + one part seeds and nuts + one part dried fruit

      For granola, all you need to do is bake oats with some kind of sweetener, before adding any seeds, nuts or dried fruits that you might want. It is often cheaper to make granola, and doing so allows you to chose ingredients that are organic and / or Fairtrade.

      Stored in an airtight jar, home made cereal lasts 1-2 months (and if you can buy ingredients loose from your local wholefood shop it will cut packaging considerably too).

      The simplest way to have an ethical breakfast though is to opt for organic porridge oats. Oats are one of the agricultural products that we can grow in abundance in the UK. They are extremely cheap compared to branded cereal (bucking the stereotype that ethical always means expensive) and are actually very nutritious as well as being associated with low cholesterol. Choose just plain oats rather than the instant ones in sachets and pots which usually have loads of sugar in them.

      See our ethical shopping guide to bread for another breakfast alternative.

      Company behind the brand

      Kellogg’s score poorly and are the best selling brand of cereals but still do not use the government-recommended traffic light colour coding for nutritional content. They have also been criticised for the high sugar content of their cereals and their use of palm oil supplied by forest destroyers.

      It is the subject of a boycott call in the USA for its use of GMOs in its products and for actively fighting against food transparency and contributing nearly $2 million to propaganda campaigns to defeat citizens’ ballot initiatives for mandatory GMO labelling in California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado.

      Want to know more?

      If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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