Special K was originally marketed as a low-fat cereal that can help you lose weight. But in fact, many cereals are low in fat—so, that’s not too special. Today, let’s take a closer look at Special K in its modern-day formulation. How does this cereal really stack up, nutritionally?
Special K is moderately healthy overall. Special K Original has about the same amount of added sugar and fiber as Corn Flakes. Other flavors of Special K, such as Red Berries, are higher in fiber but also much higher in sugar. Some flavors of Special K have as much sugar as Frosted Flakes (12g per serving).
Below, we’ll explore the details of Special K’s nutrition, comparing it to other popular cereals. I’ll answer questions about whether Special K is good for weight loss, whether it can cause acne, and more.
Photo credit: The photo of Special K above was taken by Famartin (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Is Special K Good for You?
Here are the 9 specific questions I’ll be answering about Special K nutrition. Click any of them to skip ahead to that section—or just keep scrolling to read them all:
- What Is Special K Made Of?
- Is Special K Low in Sugar?
- Is Special K High in Fiber?
- Is Special K High in Iron?
- Is Special K Processed Food?
- Is Special K Good For Weight Loss?
- Can Special K Cause Acne?
- Is Special K Better Than Other Cereals?
- Is Special K Vegan?
1. What Is Special K Made Of?
Let’s start by looking at some actual ingredients for Special K. There are many flavors, but here are five of the popular ones:
|Special K Cereal||Ingredients|
|Original||Rice, wheat gluten, sugar, defatted wheat germ, contains 2% or less of salt, malt flavor, BHT for freshness. [Added Vitamins and Minerals.]|
|Red Berries||Whole grain wheat, rice, sugar, freeze-dried strawberries, wheat bran, contains 2% or less of brown sugar syrup, salt, malt flavor. [Added Vitamins and Minerals.]|
|Protein||Whole wheat, rice, wheat gluten, sugar, soy protein isolate, wheat bran, contains 2% or less of cinnamon, malt flavor, salt, natural flavors, BHT for freshness. [Added Vitamins and Minerals]|
|Vanilla Almond||Whole grain wheat, rice, sugar, almonds, wheat bran, contains 2% or less of salt, brown sugar syrup, malt flavor, natural flavor, BHT for freshness. [Added Vitamins and Minerals.]|
|Chocolatey Delight||Whole grain wheat, rice, sugar, chocolatey chunks (sugar, hydrogenated palm kernel oil, cocoa processed with alkali, cocoa, soy lecithin, artificial flavor, milk), wheat bran, contains 2% or less of salt, brown sugar syrup, natural and artificial flavor, malt flavor, BHT for freshness. [Added Vitamins and Minerals.]|
Here’s what I notice about these ingredients:
- Special K has added sugar. Every flavor of Special K has added sugar, and some flavors have brown sugar syrup, too. We’ll look at the specific sugar content for each flavor below.
- Many flavors of Special K are made with whole grain wheat and wheat bran. These are fiber-rich ingredients, and whole grains are especially associated with health benefits. Notably, the Original flavor of Special K does not have these ingredients. We’ll cover how this affects the fiber content of each flavor below.
- Special K is free of artificial sweeteners or colors. Special K avoids controversial artificial sweeteners or colors like aspartame or red 40. So, that’s positive.
- Special K has added vitamins and minerals. These include iron, vitamin D, a mix of B vitamins, and more. These nutrients may only provide a small benefit, as they are quite common and they’d likely be absorbed better from whole foods. But they may provide some benefit.
- Various Special K flavors have real strawberries, almonds, cinnamon, and more. These are healthy whole-food ingredients that add some nutritional variety along with their flavor. However, only some Special K flavors have these nice extras.
- Special K has BHT. BHT is a preservative, sometimes negatively associated with BHA, which can have cancer-causing effects at high levels. But the research is more reassuring for BHT. And in fact, BHT may be anti-carcinogenic at low levels. So this ingredient should not be a concern.
Overall, the biggest concern in Special K’s ingredients would be the sugar. So, we’ll take a closer look at the sugar content in the next section.
Another thing: The ingredients vary quite a bit between some of these Special K flavors. So, your choice of Special K flavor may impact the nutrition quite a bit. I’ll point out more big differences between the flavors as we proceed through this review.
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2. Is Special K Low in Sugar?
Special K Original has low to moderate sugar content, with 4g of added sugar per serving. That’s the same as Corn Flakes or Rice Krispies. But other Special K flavors are higher in sugar. Special K Chocolatey Delight has 12g of added sugar per serving, the same as Frosted Flakes.
The amount of sugar in your Special K really depends on what flavor you choose. But what might surprise you is that healthy-sounding flavors like “Red Berries” and “Vanilla Almond” have almost as much added sugar as the Chocolatey Delight flavor.
The American Heart Association recommends a limit of 25g of sugar per day for women and 36g per day for men. But no added sugar is needed for human health. Really, the healthiest diet would likely just have some natural sugar from fruit and whole foods.
So, for me personally, any amount of “added sugar” is a negative. Here is a table comparing the sugar content of various Special K flavors to other popular cereal brands:
|Cereal||Serving Size||Total Sugars||Added Sugar|
|Cheerios||1 1/2 cup (39g)||2g||2g|
|Corn Flakes||1 1/2 cup (42g)||4g||4g|
|Froot Loops||1 1/3 cup (39g)||12g||12g|
|Frosted Flakes||1 cup (37g)||12g||12g|
|Grape Nuts||1/2 cup (58g)||5g||0g|
|Life||1 cup (42g)||8g||8g|
|Raisin Bran||1 cup (59g)||17g||9g|
|Rice Krispies||1 1/2 cup (40g)||4g||4g|
|Shredded Wheat||1 1/3 cup (60g)||0g||0g|
|Special K Chocolatey Delight||1 cup (42g)||12g||12g|
|Special K Original||1 1/4 cup (39g)||5g||4g|
|Special K Protein||1 1/3 cup (59g)||8g||8g|
|Special K Red Berries||1 cup (39g)||11g||10g|
|Special K Vanilla Almond||1 cup (40g)||11g||11g|
It’s also worth noting: Aside from sugar, Special K has grain-based flours that turn into sugar in your body, too. So, if you have blood-sugar issues, you may want to limit your portion sizes. (We’ll discuss blood sugar more in the acne section below.)
- Does Special K have high fructose corn syrup? Special K is sweetened with normal sugar and, in some flavors, brown sugar syrup—not high fructose corn syrup.
- Is Special K keto friendly? Special K is not keto friendly or low carb. Special K Original has 29g of carbohydrate in each serving. The majority of the calories come from carbs.
3. Is Special K High in Fiber?
Special K Original is low in fiber, with only about 2g of fiber per 100g of cereal. However, other flavors of Special K have a moderate amount of fiber—about 7g to 8g of fiber per 100g of cereal—because they are made with whole grain wheat and wheat bran.
None of the Special K flavors I checked are really remarkable in fiber content. They all have less fiber than Cheerios and shredded wheat, for example. However, it’s just the Original flavor that is particularly low in fiber.
Here is a table showing exactly how several Special K flavors compare to other popular cereals for fiber content:
|Cereal||Fiber per 100g|
|Special K Original||2.3g|
|Special K Chocolately Delight||7.1g|
|Special K Vanilla Almond||7.5g|
|Special K Red Berries||7.7g|
|Special K Protein||8.5g|
(Note: Most figures were extrapolated from smaller serving sizes, so they are not exact.)
As you can see, Special K is not the highest in fiber, but it also depends quite a bit on which flavor you choose.
4. Is Special K High in Iron?
Special K is a good source of iron. Most flavors of Special K have about 11mg of iron per serving. That’s about 60% of the Daily Value (DV) for iron, based on the needs of an adult with a 2,000 calorie diet.
If you need to improve your iron intake, I have an extra tip for you, too: Eat vitamin C at the same meal as your Special K. Vitamin C is shown to improve absorption of non-heme iron when eaten together.
So, eat some fruit with your Special K! Here’s a list of high vitamin-C fruits to especially focus on.
5. Is Special K Processed Food?
“Processed food” is a bit hard to define. Technically speaking, slicing up an apple could count as “processing.” But when we talk about “processed food,” we usually mean something else.
In practical terms, the big signs of processed food are when the ingredients contain the following:
- refined grains or flour
- vegetable oil
- monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- artificial sweeteners
- artificial colors (like red 40)
Special K is generally considered processed food due to the added sugar and salt. Many flavors have other processed ingredients like soy protein isolate and brown sugar syrup, as well. However, Special K is not ultra-processed junk food.
Like many foods today, Special K is a mix of more- and less-processed ingredients. Many flavors have whole-grain wheat, wheat bran, and other ingredients with health benefits. Meanwhile, the sugar adds empty calories. So, it’s a mixed bag.
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6. Is Special K Good For Weight Loss?
Special K is an acceptable but not perfect choice for a weight-loss diet. Other cereals could help fill you up with more fiber, less sugar, and perhaps keep you better satisfied while in a calorie deficit.
Special K is not the lowest-calorie food since it has processed sugar. Any processed ingredients (including sugar) tend to have a relatively high caloric density, as the bulk and fiber are removed. To lose weight, it helps to focus on low calorie-density foods.
By itself, a few servings of Special K will not ruin your weight loss diet, though. It can certainly be included while dieting. Weight loss depends on your overall diet and lifestyle.
If you’re burning more calories than you’re eating each week overall, you should lose weight. Eating some Special K cereal or other “processed foods” on occasion will not ruin your diet as long as the overall calorie deficit remains in tact.
- Is Special K Good For Losing Belly Fat? Specific foods cannot help you lose fat from a specific area of your body. Fat loss is a full body process, and it depends on your overall diet and lifestyle—not one food you eat. For more information, read this post on how to get six-pack abs.
7. Can Special K Cause Acne?
The relationship between diet and acne is still evolving. But increasingly, there is significant evidence that diet does play a major role in acne. And there are a few specific types of foods that are widely acknowledged as problematic.
The first big problem food for acne is dairy: Milk, cheese, ice cream, and so on. So if you’re eating your Special K with cow’s milk, that could already be aggravating your acne.
But the second kind of acne problem food is even more closely associated with Special K. It’s sugar. As covered above, Special K has a fair amount of total sugar in each serving (5g to 12g depending on the flavor)—plus it has more carbs from the grain-based flour.
Milk and sugar are suspected to affect acne through similar mechanisms. It has to do with your body’s insulin response. Your body’s use of insulin is affected by eating dairy foods and also by spikes in your blood sugar. (source)
Interestingly, this means that for many acne sufferers, reducing acne is about stabilizing your blood-sugar levels. And often, that means cutting out high-GI carbs like those found in processed cereals—or at least minimizing them.
Personally, I found cereal was one of the worst foods for my acne. Even if I chose cereals with “no added sugar,” the processed flakes still often caused me problems. Watch the video “Whole Grain Hierarchy” for more about how processing can affect glycemic index.
If you want to learn more, I wrote more about acne science and how to clear your acne in this big blog post.
8. Is Special K Better than Other Cereals?
Special K is not the healthiest cereal on the market. It has higher sugar content and lower fiber content than many other popular cereals such as Cheerios, shredded wheat, Total, and Wheaties. However, Special K is not the worst cereal, either.
Here is how Special K Original compares to various other cereals:
- Special K vs Cheerios: Special K is generally considered less healthy than Cheerios. Cheerios are higher in fiber and lower in sugar.
- Special K vs Shredded Wheat: Special K is generally considered less healthy than shredded wheat. Shredded wheat is higher in fiber and lower in sugar.
- Special K vs Total Cereal: Special K is generally considered less healthy than Total cereal. They have similar sugar content, but Total has more fiber, as it is made with 100% whole-grain wheat.
- Special K vs Wheaties: Special K is generally considered less healthy than Wheaties. They have similar sugar content, but Wheaties have more fiber, as they are made with whole-grain wheat.
- Special K vs Rice Krispies: Special K may be a bit healthier than Rice Krispies. They have roughly the same sugar content, but Special K has a bit more fiber.
- Special K vs Frosted Flakes: Special K is healthier than Frosted Flakes. Frosted Flakes have more than double the sugar of Special K Original.
- Special K vs Corn Flakes: Special K and Corn Flakes are similar nutritionally. They have roughly the same sugar content and the same fiber content, as well.
- Special K vs All-Bran: It’s hard to say which is healthier. All-Bran is higher in added sugar but also higher in fiber compared to Special K. So, it may depend on your personal nutritional priorities. Personally, I’d choose All-Bran for the fiber.
- Special K vs Raisin Bran: It’s hard to say which is healthier. Raisin Bran is higher in added sugar but also higher in fiber compared to Special K. So, it may depend on your priorities. Personally, I’d choose Special K for the lower sugar.
9. Is Special K Vegan?
Special K Original is generally considered vegan. However, it does have sugar and vitamin D3, which are gray-area ingredients some vegans avoid. Also, the Special K Chocolately Delight flavor also has milk, making it non-vegan.
One potential vegan complaint against Special K is that the sugar could be processed with bone char. (Non-organic cane sugar is often filtered with animal bone char in the production process.) But most vegans are not so picky to boycott foods over that detail.
Another potential issue: Like many fortified cereals, Special K has added vitamin D3, which is technically not vegan, as it comes from lanolin (from sheep’s wool). But again, many vegans are ok with this since it’s such a minor ingredient.
So, despite those two controversial ingredients, most vegans would still say that Special K Original is vegan. Just don’t eat it with cow’s milk!
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