May 20, 2014 at 1:00 am

Cereal killer: Diet doc says most low-sugar cereals are just as bad for you

Reacting to a study, Dr. Tom Rifai says most low-sugar cereals are problematic, especially in large portions. (Environmental Working Group)

Tom Rifai says he doesn’t want to call the Froot Loops report an atrocity, but you can tell he’s only being polite.

Rifai, 45, is my go-to guy for information on diet, nutrition and whether I can feel virtuous about eating chocolate.

When the good doctor is not trying to cure my ignorance, he’s the medical director of St. Joseph Mercy Oakland’s nutrition and weight management program, and he’s the freshly crowned president of the National Board of Physician Nutrition Specialists.

In short, when it comes to what we should be eating, he knows his onions.

That’s why I asked him about chocolate, red wine, eggs, chicken wings and vegetable soup — and why he wanted to vent about the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and its new report on breakfast cereals.

Most of the time, Rifai says, he has no beef with the EWG, a nonprofit dealing with environmental health research. But staffers there just tested the sugar content of 1,556 cereals, including 181 marketed to children — and when it comes to Cap’n Crunch, he’ll tell you they missed the boat.

Discovering common knowledge, the report points out that cereals with cartoon characters on the box tend to have the most sugar. It also says that sugary cereals tend to make slyly distracting claims, trumpeting things like their Vitamin D content to deflect attention from Vitamin Dentist.

No argument there. But the report makes lists of the most (among them Honey Smacks, Golden Crisp and Froot Loops with Marshmallows) and least sugared cereals, with an inference in Rifai’s eye that Rice Krispies, Cheerios and Corn Flakes are somehow healthy.

As Toucan Sam might say if you found him in French Guiana, au contraire.

Devil's in the details

The issue isn’t sugar, Rifai says. It’s total refined carbohydrates, including refined starch.

On a molecular level, he says, starch is just a long chain of sugars. That’s why if you spend 45 seconds with a mouthful of cornflakes, they’ll start to taste sweet. Table sugar is a short chain — glucose and fructose — so it’s sweet right away.

“Starch, in the end, is still sugar,” says Rafai, who expounds on that further at . His bottom line:

Look for whole grain cereals, like maybe Frosted Mini-Wheats. Better yet, make shredded wheat and toss in some dried fruit. The sugar in raisins is unrefined, and they’re not peppered with salt.

As for dark chocolate and red wine, modest amounts might actually be good for your heart.

Or they might not; nobody has done actual placebo tests comparing a control group of chocolate-eaters or wine drinkers with other segments of people who got stuck in really lousy groups.

If you don’t drink, Rifai says, it’s a bad idea to start just so you can gulp some red wine. If you’re knocking back so much dark chocolate that you gain weight, you might be happier, but you’re definitely not healthier.


On a wing and an egg

A few other items from Rifai’s vast pantry of nutritional knowledge:

Yes, the vegetables in soup are still good for you by the time they reach your spoon.

Some of their value has been lost along the way, and chances are they’ll be keeping company with way too much salt. But vegetables remain your friend.

So do egg yolks, though they’re not a friend you want to hang around with too often.

“The yolk is not a beast to be demonized,” he says. But it’s not necessarily a good thing that yolks raise HDL cholesterol, and heart patients should avoid them no matter what somebody posted on Facebook.

Moving northward on the chicken, wings are a reasonable treat once in awhile, Rifai says, particularly if they’re baked or grilled rather than battered and fried.

Just skip the bread or french fries as a side dish and eat baked, low-starch vegetables instead.

Every tried crispy asparagus? It’ll make you forget dark chocolate.

At least, if you’ve had enough red wine.
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