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Honey Nut Cheerios: What are you actually eating?

Published: March 9, 2012
Section: Features, Top Stories

Honey Nut Cheerios commercials boast about the cereal’s ability to lower your cholesterol, but do you really understand all of the ingredients on the food label that claim to have this effect on your body? Do you, in fact, even look at the food label?

I know this task may seem annoying at first or that this would require an extra effort, but as Dr. Elaine Lai (BIOL), a professor of two nutrition courses here at Brandeis—Diet and Health (BIOL 55B) and Food, Nutrition and Health (BISC 4B)—confesses, “Reading food labels has become an automatic habit of mine. It is now second nature to pick up a food item at the grocery store and start reading the food label.”

She even admits that once we “learn how to read food labels, it can actually be a fun and instructive exercise that leads to choosing a more nutritious diet and therefore a healthier lifestyle.”

Ingredients “are always listed in descending order by weight on a food label,” Lai explained. The next step is actually to understand the ingredients.

The following ingredients are found on the nutrition label of Honey Nut Cheerios:

Whole grain oats (includes the oat bran)

The American Association of Cereal Chemists International (AACCI) defines whole grain as an “intact, ground, cracked or flaked caryopsis,” which is a fruit—a general term for the ripened ovaries of a plant—with all three of its anatomical parts fused together. The caryopsis must be present “in the same relative proportions” as that of the normally intact one before processing. Oat bran, also defined by AACCI, is “produced by grinding clean oat groats or rolled oats and separating the resulting oat flour” from the mixture in such a way that less than 50 percent of the original starting material is oat bran.

From this oat flour there must be “at least 16 percent betaglucan,” a soluble fiber calculated into a requirement that “one-third of the total dietary fiber” be “soluble fiber.” The remaining fiber can be insoluble fiber, which cannot be dissolved in water.

Since soluble fiber can be dissolved in water, a gel-like liquid forms that helps slow down digestion and helps you feel fuller for longer. With whole grain oats, it’s like a two-for-one deal: You get both the insoluble fiber from the whole grain and the soluble fiber from the oat bran.


Table sugar, also known as sucrose, is made up of both glucose and fructose. The body metabolizes both of these sugars in different pathways but both use them to produce energy for the cell. Any excess glucose that is not needed by the cell is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscle cells.

Modified corn starch

Corn starch, a type of starch extracted from corn, can be chemically modified in several ways such that it can withstand the conditions of food processing, according to a research article by Huijun Liu. Since various chemical alterations to the corn starch molecule can be made, the modified corn starch from one food product may be different from that of another. Starch itself is a carbohydrate in which plants store excess glucose. Each glucose unit can be arranged in a straight chain or in a branched-like structure. These different connectivities allow for potential cross-linking, which strengthens the bonds between each glucose unit and creates the familiar sticky-like paste with which people use to thicken food.


According to “Contemporary Nutrition” written by Dr. Gordon Wardlaw and Dr. Anne Smith, honey “is a product of plant nectar that has been altered by bee enzymes.” Since bee enzymes are required to break down the nectar’s sucrose into glucose and fructose, honey cannot be synthetically made. Like the sucrose in table sugar, it is used for energy. Excess sucrose molecules get stored as glycogen.

Brown sugar syrup

Sugar is sucrose. Sucrose is made out of glucose and fructose. Now, the sugar is brown. And it’s a syrup. The brown sugar comes from molasses in addition to sucrose. Water helps form the syrup. By now, you probably have a lot of excess sucrose, so it will be stored for later use as glycogen.


The common table salt is made up of sodium chloride, NaCl, which can be readily dissolved in water to form the ions Na+ and Cl-. Sodium ions (Na+) actively participate in sodium-potassium pumps present in the cells. These pumps drive many transport processes and convey electrical signals within the body. Chloride ions (Cl-), by contrast, counteract much of the positively charged ions such as Na+ in the cell. The chloride-controlled channels inhibit some of the electrical signals sent by the sodium ions, according to my cell biology textbook by Alberts.

Tripotassium phosphate

According to the FDA website, tripotassium phosphate is used as an emulsifier. Emulsifiers are able to mix two liquids that normally do not dissolve in each other, such as water and oil, together into a stable form.

Canola and/or rice bran oil

According to an encyclopedia article by Uebersax, “refined rice bran oil possesses a low content of linolenic acid (highly unsaturated) and a high content of tocopherols.” Canola oil is also highly unsaturated. Unsaturation describes a molecule that does not possess all the hydrogens that it could possibly have. This allows for fluidity in the cell membrane, thereby keeping it in active motion as opposed to being inhibited from movement as is the case with saturated fats.

Natural almond flavor

According to the Food Marketing Institute, natural, as opposed to organic (which has stricter requirements to be labeled as such), “applies broadly to foods that are minimally processed [and] are not subject to government controls beyond the regulations and health codes that apply to all foods.” Therefore, anything that is organic is natural, but what is natural may not necessarily be organic. Almond flavor arises from benzaldehyde, which, when naturally extracted from apricot kernels, can be potentially dangerous because of the generation of hydrocyanic acid, as summarized in “Biocatalysis for Green Chemistry and Chemical Process Development” edited by Junhua Tao and Romas Kazlauskas.

Vitamin E (mixed tocopherols)

Vitamin E is a family of alpha, beta, gamma and delta tocopherols. It is regarded as an antioxidant because it “protects fatty acid[s found in the cell membrane] from degradation through oxidation,” according to the textbook “Organic Chemistry” written by Dr. Paula Bruice.

Since vitamin E is a lipid, it can mingle with the other lipids in the cell membrane and react with oxygen molecules faster than the other fats. In this way, it behaves similarly to those crazy early bird shoppers during Black Friday who are able to get their hands on the best deals before the “slowpokes” (i.e. the other fats in the cell).

On the bright side, vitamin E gets rid of something you don’t want anyway (unless you like wrinkles), and according to a book called “Vegetable Oils in Food Technology” edited by Frank Gunstone, “a single molecule of tocopherol can protect about 1,000 to 1,000,000 molecules of polyunsaturated fatty acids in the living cell!”

As noted in the label, vitamin E was “added to preserve freshness,” which might seem odd if you haven’t take an organic chemistry course before, but vitamin E (or similar structures) can have antioxidant effects in both living and nonliving things.

Calcium carbonate

According to the FDA, calcium carbonate, a white powder, is used as an anticaking agent and for color. An anticaking agent, as explained in a book by Fennema, is able to absorb excess moisture, which allows the food to maintain its granular and powdered form.

Zinc and iron, vitamin C, vitamin B3 (niacinamide), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), vitamin B2 (riboflavin) vitamin B1 (thiamin mononitrate), vitamin A (palmitate), folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin D3

According to MedlinePlus, zinc is needed for proper immune system function, “cell division, cell growth, wound healing, and the breakdown of carbohydrates.” Iron and vitamin B12 form complexes with protein that are required “for the synthesis of hemoglobin, which is the major protein in red blood cells,” according to the textbook written by Dr. Bruce Alberts called “Essential Cell Biology.”

Vitamin C, like vitamin E, is an antioxidant, but unlike vitamin E, it can dissolve in water. As a result, you have vitamin C working in an aqueous environment and vitamin E working in the fatty areas. MedlinePlus explains that vitamin B3 is “required for the proper function of fats and sugars in the body and to maintain healthy cells.” It also explains that vitamin B6 is important in antibody formation, normal nerve function, hemoglobin formation, protein degradation and glucose regulation. Additionally, as described in Medline, vitamin B2 “is required for the proper development and function of the skin, lining of the digestive tract, [and] blood cells;” whereas, vitamin B1 is “required by our bodies to properly use carbohydrates.”

Furthermore, vitamin A, another antioxidant, may be involved in “vision, bone growth, reproduction” and the immune system; whereas, folic acid helps “make healthy new cells.” An encyclopedia entry titled “Control of Gene Expression by Vitamin D Receptor” by Dr. A. Konev describes that vitamin D3 is important in calcium regulation, bone formation and cell division.

Are you still curious as to whether or not Honey Nut Cheerios can lower your cholesterol? The answer lies in the food label. Maybe you will be like Dr. Lai and have fun deciphering it.