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One morning recently in my rush to get to work, I had too much hemp and ate my Chia Pet. At least, that’s what it felt like after a breakfast of chia seeds, buckwheat groats, dried cranberries, and hemp seeds.
Sounds awful, doesn’t it? But it actually tasted better than expected, and in fact wasn’t a bad introduction to the newest food fad touted as “diabetes-friendly”: high-protein, gluten-free breakfast cereals using alternative grains and ingredients.
Yep, the latest trend sweeping the nation sent me once again into the DiabetesMine test kitchen to get you a hands-on review of their smell, taste, consistency, how well they hold hunger at bay, and the all-important issue of their impact on blood sugar.
Why the rush of new cereal brands touting high-protein content? Nutritionists generally agree that curbing carbohydrates in favor of protein for the first meal of the day helps keep you full and satisfied, with steady blood sugar levels — pure gold for people with diabetes of course.
People don’t want to give up cereal, but most well-known mainstream brands pack upwards of 20 grams of carbs per (generally small) serving. There are some lower carb and medium carb cereal options to choose from, but many lack protein, taste bland, and most contain wheat — which increasing numbers of people are working to avoid these days, whether they have celiac disease or for general gut health.
Enter new high-protein, gluten-free cereals that boast fresh, tasty ingredients to brighten up your morning. We decided to try out four of them: Nature’s Path, Three Wishes, Kay’s Naturals, and HighKey.
The plan was for me to eat each of these four cereals two times, being sure to start with an in-range blood sugar, and to record my levels at 1 and 2 hours after eating. To keep the playing field even, I aimed to use the exact same volume of milk, and identical breakfast items with each test.
While I was careful to eat each with nothing other than my standard morning cup of coffee, it turned out that some of the cereals required a specific amount of milk or milk substitute to become edible, amounts that didn’t necessarily work for other products. So I used the minimum needed in each case, selecting Half & Half cream because its extra fat slows carb absorption, and because I like the taste.
As to blood sugar impact, I can tell you right now that eating these cereals instead of my usual super low-carb breakfast of sausage and cheese threw my blood sugar control badly out of kilter quickly and lastingly. So I had to resort to focusing on the number of points of the spike, rather than any particular glucose targets, to gauge the effect of each product. I recorded all of this using my Dexcom CGM.
This Canadian company has been around since 1985. In their media kit, they say that they’ve “been organic” since the beginning, and they claim to be pioneers in the organic movement. In addition to cereal, they make granola bars, toaster pastries, and waffles. Their website lists 134 products.
Product specifics: Qi’a superfood chia, buckwheat and hemp cereal, cranberry vanilla flavor.
- Average cost per serving: $1.67
Ingredients: Chia seeds, buckwheat groats, hemp seeds, dried cranberries, almonds.
- Serving size: 2 tablespoons
- Calories: 140
- Net carbs: 10 g
- Protein: 6 g, the lowest of the four we tested
The packaging: A smallish plastic sack with a flat bottom that allows it to stand up.
The experience: In the package, the cereal looks remarkably like the contents of the dust bin of my robot vacuum when I clean it out. The cereal has a bit of a musty, earthy odor that’s not really unpleasant, but difficult to describe.
In the bowl, with milk on it, the mixture is watery at first, with black seeds floating to the top. It then thickens to a tapioca-like consistency that has the look of ashen Malt-O-Meal.
Per the packaging, you must wait 5 minutes after adding milk before the chia seeds are consumable. Per my experience, if you wait 10 minutes, you have a Chia Pet. The consistency is soft, yet crunchy, although a bit slimy.
The flavor is also hard to put into words. It has a health food flavor, if you know what I mean. One of those, ‘Well this isn’t great, but I feel virtuous eating it” kinda flavors. My notes from the time say: Nutty, with salad undertones. Which, grant you, is an odd flavor for first-thing-in-the-morning.
Fun fact: Said to be good hot or cold, Qi’a supposedly can also be added to yogurt, smoothies, oatmeal, or salads for “an added nutritional boost.” Ah, I thought I detected some sorta salad vibe going on with it.
Blood sugar responses:
- Baseline: 192 mg/dL
- At 1 hour: 212 mg/dL
- At 2 hours: 181 mg/dL
- Spike: 20 points, and returning to base within 2 hours
- Baseline: 228 mg/dL
- At 1 hour: 234 mg/dL
- At 2 hours: 200 mg/dL
- Spike: 6 points, returning below baseline within 2 hours
My average glucose spike was only 13 points, making this product seem exceptionally diabetes-friendly indeed.
The company name comes from the fact the founders are the Wishingrads, and there are three of them. The company is less than a year old, and the adult brains behind the brand (one of the three wishes is their post-toddler son) both have backgrounds in marketing.
Product specifics: Cocoa grain-free cereal.
- Average cost per serving: $1.43
Ingredients: Chickpeas, tapioca, pea protein, organic cane sugar, cocoa, monk fruit.
- Serving size: ¾ cup
- Calories: 120
- Net carbs: 14 g
- Protein: 8 g
The packaging: A standard cardboard cereal box with a translucent plastic sack liner inside to hold the cereal.
The experience: The cereal smells chocolatey. Each nugget looks like an oversized, flat Cheerio that has been burnt to a crisp. Like Cheerios, they float. Unlike Cheerios, they remain crunchy for… well, I guess forever. And I don’t mean crunchy in a good way, either. I’m talking, break your tooth crunchy.
On my second go at the cereal I let them float in the milk for a looooong time, something that would be death to a conventional cereal, and it helped. On the plus side, if you ever wished for chocolate milk with breakfast as a kid, Three Wishes grants that wish: The milk in the bowl turns into very respectable chocolate milk. Respectable enough that I felt guilty slurping it down after crunching my way through the cereal.
Fun fact: The box screams “chocolate” with multiple shades of chocolate-brown ink.
Blood sugar responses:
- Baseline: 116 mg/dL
- At 1 hour: 183 mg/dL with a quarter arrow up (peaking a hair over 200)
- At 2 hours: 155 mg/dL with a quarter arrow down
- Spike: 84 points
- Baseline: 143 mg/dL
- At 1 hour: 235 with a quarter arrow up (peaking over 250)
- At 2 hours: 214 and level
- Spike: 110 points
My average spike here was 97 points, with no recovery to baseline.
This company makes cereals, chips, cookie bites, pretzels, and puffs. Since 2010, the Kay’s manufacturing facility has been a dedicated gluten-free plant. All their products are Certified Gluten-Free by the Gluten Intolerance Group, and kosher certified by the Orthodox Union.
Product specifics: Protein cookie bites, cinnamon almond flavor.
- Average cost per serving: $1.49
Ingredients: Soy protein isolate, rice flour, corn flour, almond butter, plus trace elements including pea fiber and tapioca starch.
- Serving size: One pouch (1.2 oz)
- Calories: 125
- Net carbs: 11 g
- Protein: 12 g, the highest of the four we tested
The packaging: Handy individually wrapped small plastic-foil sacks. No measuring and easy portability!
The experience: On tearing the packet open, I was greeted with the smell of fresh waffles. The cereal is made up of robust squares about an inch by half inch, coated in cinnamon. They look cookie-like, but if you pop one in your mouth, the consistency — while crunchy — is wrong. It’s somehow both tough and powdery at the same time, for some reason evoking petrified foam packing peanuts in my mind.
Yes, they’re solid, but oddly lacking in consistency. How is that even possible? Once in milk, envision if you will putting salad croutons in a bowl, pouring milk over them, and eating them. “Thick and dense” say my first experience notes. The taste is pure cinnamon, not waffle. Just raw cinnamon. That’s the only flavor that exists. It’s not bad, but hardly fabulous.
Fun fact: Kay’s also makes a product called “Pass the Peas,” a chickpea chip in dill-pickle, maple-bacon, and smoky BBQ flavors.
Blood sugar responses:
- Baseline: 140 mg/dL
- At 1 hour: 191 mg/dL
- At 2 hours: 205 mg/dL
- Spike: 65 points
- Baseline: 180 mg/dL
- At 1 hour: 216 mg/dL
- At 2 hours: 269 mg/dL
- Spike: 89 points
My average spike was 77 points, with blood sugar still rising after 2 hours.
Founded in 2018, this company’s claim to fame is that they are “foodies, not scientists.” Their box is emblazoned with the tagline, FOMO NO MO’ — a social media term meaning “Fear Of Missing Out,” which HighKey has co-opted to mean no missing out on flavor.
The Key in HighKey? The company is aimed squarely at the Keto Diet market, and they boast a wide range of products including baking mixes, snacks, and cookies.
HighKey is best known for its keto chocolate chip cookie, which has racked up an astounding 16,000+ customer reviews online, with 80 percent of them five-star, and an additional 10 percent four-star. Cereal is new to HighKey, with the company entering this rapidly growing category just this year.
Product specifics: Protein cereal, cinnamon.
- Average cost per serving: $1.47
Ingredients: Milk protein isolate, erythritol, medium chain triglycerides, inulin, allulose, syrup, cinnamon. (What on earth is a medium chain triglyceride? How come there are no recognizable main ingredients here?)
- Serving size: ½ cup
- Calories: 90
- Net carbs: 0 g (Black Magic Alert: Unlike the other cereals in our test, whose net carbs are Total Carbs minus Fiber, HighKey subtracts dietary fiber and the carbs from sugar alcohols erythritol and allulose. I took them at their word that the cereal has no carbs, and took no insulin for it.)
- Protein: 10 g
The packaging: A small cardboard box (think Grape Nuts) with a clear plastic sack inside to hold the contents.
The experience: Opening the package, you’re greeted with a pleasing molasses smell, although the appearance of the cereal is disturbingly like toasted fly larvae. Well, at least they aren’t moving! The consistency is crunchy, tougher than Rice Krispies, although the individual bits float like their more famous cousins. Sadly, they don’t snap, crackle, or pop. The flavor is cinnamon, but this time sweet. Like eating a Cinnabon!
This was by far the sweetest of the four I tested, but it’s an oddly metallic sweet, with a bitter aftertaste. I see it has monk fruit extract in it, which like many other people, strikes my palate as metallic followed by bitter. If your palate is more monk fruit-friendly, and you like sweet breakfasts, you’ll like the flavor.
While the competing Kay’s product is more like sprinkling pure cinnamon on your tongue, the HighKey is more like sipping a cinnamon syrup. (Neither cinnamon cereal cured my diabetes, darn it!) Not long after eating, however, I found the HighKey heavy on my stomach. I wasn’t nauseated, but rather felt like I’d eaten a bowling ball. The unpleasant sensation stayed with me through more than half the day. On my second test, I felt the same thing, but not as severely, nor as long.
Fun fact: The back of the box has a breakfast word search game, a word scramble, and a writer-oriented riddle: “What do authors eat for breakfast? Synonym buns!” (groan). But it’s so hokey I had to laugh.
Blood sugar responses:
- Baseline: 138 mg/dL
- At 1 hour: 191 mg/dL
- At 2 hours: 201 mg/dL
- Spike: 63 points
- Baseline: 168 mg/dL
- At 1 hour: 214 mg/dL
- At 2 hours: 199 mg/dL
- Spike: 46 points
My Average spike was 55 points, and I stayed elevated.
Nature’s Path’s Qi’a is undeniably diabetes-friendly. It raises blood sugar very little in the first place, and levels return quickly to baseline. If you eat it fast, and immediately rinse out your mouth and thoroughly brush your teeth, it’s a tolerable experience.
The other three, however, all exhibited a combination of excessive blood sugar spikes combined with no recovery, and a stubborn tenacity of blood sugar that resisted correction. For me, large repeated insulin correction doses were required to lower my blood glucose after eating these three cereals.
I often found they left my sugar highly resistant to corrections not just following the meal, but all day long and throughout the following night — despite using a Tandem Control-IQ pump that, for me anyway, had made elevated morning blood sugars a distant memory. And to add insult to injury, none of the cereals really tasted all that great, and they all suffer from varying degrees of oddball texture.
If I’m going to wreck my blood sugar, it should really be over something that tastes great, like the Elephant Bar’s towering Fudge-fudge Walnut Brownie; although, granted, that’s really not a breakfast food.
I also found that, compared to my usual breakfast, all of the cereals — while initially filling — left me hungry long before lunch. Part of this, of course, could be the result of the elevated blood sugars.
But wait, isn’t protein supposed to keep hunger at bay? Well, here’s the thing: While high-protein cereals are much higher in protein than conventional cereals, they really aren’t all that high. Consider a typical truck stop bacon and eggs breakfast for comparison: While the “high” protein cereals range from 6 to 12 grams of protein, a breakfast of three eggs and four slices of bacon would have over 30 grams of protein!
Meanwhile, a 5 net carb Muscle Milk meal replacement shake can have as much as 40 grams of protein — so there are other lower carb options to protein-up without blood sugar problems.
To learn more about healthy choices, see our DiabetesMine guide to What to Eat for Breakfast with Type 1 Diabetes.
My favorite of the four cereals tested here? To be honest, I found them all problematic in one way or another — either for my taste buds, digestive system, or my blood sugar.
Taste-wise, the HighKey takes the prize, although I’ll admit to having some reservations about eating “medium chain triglycerides” for breakfast, whatever the heck those are. It also has the best consistency, although that’s not saying much. Meanwhile, even though its flavor is odd, I have to give Nature’s Path second place in the flavor contest. And hands down, Nature’s Path also wins the Best Blood Sugar Response trophy.
If you generally eat cereal for breakfast anyway, each of these ups the ante on protein over traditional breakfast cereals. But while all four are on the low carb side, three of the four left me with elevated blood sugars far longer than traditional cereals do. And these elevated sugar levels were surprisingly resistant to corrections.
When it comes to cost, these high-protein cereals run an average of $1.52 per serving. That will hardly break the bank, but how does that compare to conventional cereals? We averaged the cost of Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, and Honey Bunches of Oats (the four top-selling cold cereals in the nation, according to Kiplinger) and came up with $0.22 per serving. So the high-protein alternatives are nearly 600 percent more expensive. That means over the course of a year, eating high protein over conventional name brand cereals would set you back an additional $475.
All of those factors, combined with an average taste and consistency profile that was underwhelming to say the least, left me happy to put away the bowls and spoons at the end of the experiment, and get out a plate for my traditional half sausage patty with cheese.
Wil Dubois lives with type 1 diabetes and is the author of five books on the illness, including “Taming The Tiger” and “Beyond Fingersticks.” He spent many years helping treat patients at a rural medical center in New Mexico. An aviation enthusiast, Wil lives in Las Vegas, NM, with his wife and son, and one too many cats.