In a perfect world we would have time to cook and eat whole foods at every meal. However, that's not always a reality for many athletes, especially when working full time and training. Often athletes who are on the road and looking for a bit more convenience, choose boxed cereal for breakfast. It's simple, it's crunchy and it's tasty. But what's really in it and should it be in you?
The purpose of this article is not to scare you away from eating processed foods, nor is it just another article with the message "everything you eat these days can give you cancer." The purpose is simply to shed some light on some of the ingredients that we can easily avoid and should avoid when buying boxed cereal and other processed foods.
Most athletes find it difficult to reduce their overall simple sugars and increase whole foods in their diets—to optimize recovery and health. Avoiding cereals with chemicals can be a great first step for improving your nutrition. Once you find a few good options you can stick with those when convenience calls. Here are some of the top ingredients I would avoid on your ingredient label when purchasing your cereal. (Not to worry! There are still a lot of cereals to choose from that don't have these in them!)
BHA is butylated hydroxyanisole and BHT is butylated hydroxytoluene. BHT is a preservative. It is used to prevent rancidity in foods with fats/oils. Although most studies have been done with rats, mice and hamsters, it has been shown in several studies to cause cancer. Although controversial, the evidence seems strong enough to have caused the banning of BHT in the UK and in California (where it is listed as a carcinogen).
As well, BHT is banned from baby foods as it has been linked to hyperactivity. BHT is an approved preservative as far as the FDA is concerned. Several studies that have concluded that it is "reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen" (Department of Health and Human Services). BHT is also used in jet fuel and embalming fluid as well as many familiar skin products. The Material Safety Data Sheet for BHA looks like this:
- Do NOT let this chemical enter the environment.
- Ingestion causes abdominal pain, confusion, dizziness, nausea, vomiting.
- The substance may have effects on the liver.
- The substance is harmful to aquatic organisms.
I suggest not eating BHT/BHA in your breakfast cereal when there are BHT- and BHA-free options. Just read the labels! You may be surprised how often these three little letters pop up! Even in "healthy" cereals.
More: Get Cereal Smart
Partially Hydrogenated Oils
Whoa! Make room for the blood to run through your arteries! Stop eating artery clogging fats! Start reading labels! Don't get sucked into the label claims. Just because a product says "0 grams of trans fats" it DOES NOT mean it is TRANS FAT FREE (free of hydrogenated oils). In fact the FDA has allowed this claim to be made as long as the product has less than half a gram (.49g) of trans fats per serving. Sneaky!
Making serving sizes smaller in order to sneak in more hydrogenated oils is a slick move as well—who only eats a 1/2 cup of cereal? Cereal adds up if you are eating it often and especially in the portions that an athlete would consume. If you see partially hydrogenated oils on the label, avoid the product altogether.