What are cereals?
A cereal is a grass grown for its edible ‘fruit’ – better known as its grain. Cereal crops are grown in large quantities and provide more food energy than any other crop, both directly as human food and indirectly as livestock feed.
In their natural, minimally processed form, cereals are rich in vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, oils and protein. Often confused for cereal grains, buckwheat and quinoa are actually the seeds of plants. But because their culinary uses are similar we’ve included them in our selection.
Discover our full range of health benefit guides, check out our tips on how to use grains and our pick of the best healthy breakfast cereals.
What are the healthiest cereals?
1. Wheat (Triticum)
One of the most commonly eaten cereals, wheat and its close relatives (durum, spelt, emmer, einkorn and khorasan) are an important source of carbohydrate.
Wholegrain wheat includes all three parts of the grain – the bran, wheatgerm and endosperm. This ensures that the naturally-occurring nutrients are retained, along with the fibre. This is why wholegrain wheat is nutrient-rich and, when eaten regularly, may help protect against chronic diseases, such as heart disease and stroke, certain forms of cancer and type 2 diabetes.
In a small part of the population, gluten (the major part of wheat protein) can trigger an auto-immune condition called coeliac disease, or lead to a condition called non-coeliac gluten sensitivity.
As an ingredient wheat is extremely versatile – it comprises much of our daily bread and is available as pasta, couscous, semolina and bulgur wheat.
Read our guide on the 10 healthiest breads.
Get cooking with our wholewheat spaghetti and avocado sauce, squash, chicken and couscous one-pot, and Mediterranean spelt-stuffed peppers.
Pearl barley is the most commonly available variety. It’s not a wholegrain, so although it is a good source of some nutrients, it’s not as beneficial as pot barley, which has only the outer hull removed.
But barley is a source of soluble fibre called beta-glucan, which appears to influence energy metabolism by indirectly suppressing appetite and improving insulin sensitivity. Like wheat, barley is a gluten-containing grain and as such not suitable for those with coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity.
Be inspired by our pea, feta and pearl barley stew and steak with roasted pepper and pearl barley salad.
Also known as maize, corn is one of the most popular cereals consumed globally. As well as being a source of vitamins, minerals and fibre, corn provides plant compounds including the carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin. In fact, corn provides more of these protective plant compounds than most other cereal grains – a diet rich in these may reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and obesity and protect against vision loss.
Enjoy corn in our almond, raisin and popcorn trail mix and smoky corn and avocado salsa.
Although it looks like a seed, millet is a gluten-free cereal grain that boasts a high fibre, protein and protective antioxidant content. With a low glycaemic index and being rich in indigestible carbs, millet may help stabilise blood sugar levels.
Give it a go with our millet porridge with almond milk and berry compote.
Oats are rich in prebiotic fibres, one example being the soluble fibre, beta-glucan. Prebiotic fibres act as a fuel source for our gut microbes and in so doing stimulate their growth and activity, and enable them to crowd out less desirable, pathogenic microbes. Prebiotic fibres are important for promoting a healthy gut environment, maintaining proper gut function and minimising inflammation.
Find out more about the health benefits of oats and learn how to make the best porridge.
Put the oats in your cupboard to good use with our apricot and hazelnut muesli, orange and blueberry bircher, and cheese, oat and spring onion soda bread.
Rice is one of the most important dietary carbohydrates in the world, with over half the global population depending on it. Typically boiled or steamed, it can also be ground into a gluten-free flour.
Brown rice retains the bran layer and as such contains protective compounds called flavonoids – examples of these include apigenin and quercetin. These compounds play an important role in protecting against disease.
Discover the health benefits of rice.
Enjoy rice in our roast chicken thighs with brown rice and salsa verde, and spicy cauliflower and halloumi rice.
Rye is rich in lignans, which are plant compounds linked with a wide range of health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease, menopausal symptoms, osteoporosis and breast cancer. Studies confirm that bread made with 100% rye has less of a negative effect on blood sugar than the equivalent wheat bread and as a result is likely to keep you fuller for longer.
Experiment with rye with our recipe for rye sourdough bread.
Less familiar to many of us, sorghum is the fifth most produced cereal crop in the world and is gluten free. It can be cooked like rice, milled to a flour or popped like popcorn. In its wholegrain form it’s nutrient dense, low in fat and high in fibre.
It is a better source of magnesium than wheat and is rich in plant compounds including flavonoids, phenolic acids and tannins. These compounds are known for their health benefits, which include being anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-diabetic.
A cross between wheat and rye, this gluten-containing grain boasts more protein than its parents and is higher in most minerals and some vitamins. It has a lower gluten content than wheat so when used in bread making it’s best mixed with wheat flour.
Buckwheat has an enviable antioxidant profile, better than that of many cereal grains including oats and wheat. As well as containing plant compounds such as rutin, it’s one of the richest food sources of d-chiro inositol, which may help manage blood sugar levels. Despite the name, it’s actually a seed rather than a grain buckwheat. Buckwheat is also naturally gluten free.
Discover the health benefits of buckwheat.
Try buckwheat in our cinnamon buckwheat pancakes and buckwheat mushroom risotto.
Quinoa is high in anti-inflammatory plant compounds, which makes it potentially beneficial in the prevention and treatment of disease. Quinoa contains small amounts of the heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids and when compared to common cereals, has a higher content of monounsaturated fat.
Discover the health benefits of quinoa.
Enjoy versatile quinoa in our cardamom and peach quinoa porridge, quinoa chilli with avocado and griddled chicken with Greek quinoa salad.
Want to learn more?
Top 10 healthiest breads
Top 20 healthiest fruits
Top 10 healthiest nuts
Is bread healthy?
Gluten-free baking recipes
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition
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