My children are avid eaters of breakfast cereal. I avoid the sugar-coated and chocolate varieties they clamour for in the supermarket, but their staple breakfast is made up of Rice Krispies, Special K, Cheerios and Oatibix. I read recently that breakfast cereals are nutritionally questionable, and may even contain a type of carcinogen. Should I banish these boxes from the breakfast table? Emma, 43, Brighton
I suspect the cancer-causing substance to which you are referring may be molecules called advanced glycation end products, or AGEs for short. These are formed when foods are heated at a high temperature and have been linked to triggering inflammation in the body, which in turn may increase the risk of problems such as arthritis, Alzheimer's, heart disease and also cancer. In other words, they appear to play a role in speeding up the ageing process.
The biggest contributors of AGEs to our diet are far and away meat and other protein-rich foods which are cooked at high temperatures such as roasting and grilling. Much lower amounts are formed when carbohydrates are cooked or processed at high temperatures. French fries and crisps are two of the worst, although they still contain nowhere near as many AGEs as, say, a burger.
Breakfast cereals that contain a lot of sugar will contain more AGEs than those with little added sugar. Given that it is a good idea to keep a close eye on the amount of sugar and salt that children eat, swapping to the cereals you mention is a good idea for this reason alone. That you will be slightly lowering their AGE intake is another, smaller, advantage.
Ultimately, the less processed the breakfast cereal, the less sugar, salt and AGEs it will contain and the more naturally present fibre, vitamins and minerals you will get. This means that something such as good old-fashioned porridge is an excellent start to the day for children and adults alike.
The disadvantage of dropping the cereals you currently give your children is that they are fortified and can provide useful top-ups of B vitamins and in some cases vitamin D, which is quite hard to find in foods other than oily fish. Many are also fortified with iron, a mineral which is vital for growth and energy. Since cereals will be eaten with milk, which is great for bone-building calcium, these or porridge are still worth having on your children's breakfast table.
It is generally thought to be good to eat a wide variety of foods, so rather than rely on breakfast cereals every day, it would make good nutritional sense to alternate cereal days with breakfasts of boiled eggs and bread, scrambled eggs with grilled tomatoes (grilled vegetables have hardly any AGEs) and even a really nutritious home-made smoothie made with semi-skimmed milk, yoghurt, a banana and another favourite fruit of your children's choice such as peaches, pineapple or berries (which can be fresh, frozen or canned in natural juice).
Special Thanks to The London Times