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Against The Grain

There are two boxes of cereal that regularly occupy space in my cupboards. Kellogs Frosted Mini-Wheats®, and Cheerios®. Like so many other people, cereal is a part of my family’s daily consumptions. For years now, we have bought these two brands for two main reasons: their nutritional value and their taste.

Last July, I blogged about the unsubstantiated claims made by Kellogg’s that their Mini-Wheats had been clinically proven to improve children’s attentiveness by 20 percent. My skepti-senses tingled, and it turned out my skepticism was justified. Last month, on The Skeptics Guide podcast, we followed up on the Kellogg’s story and reported on their settlement with the FTC over their false claims. Chalk this round up for the consumer!

So when I was writing that blog entry last summer, I had thought to myself, “Well, at least the folks at Cheerios aren’t trying these kinds of shenanigans.” What would be the odds of both of my family’s two cereal choices (the two we regularly purchase out of the hundreds of possible cereal options) of getting into trouble with the authorities? Pretty low, I would have wagered.

Good thing I didn’t make any bets.

It was reported last Wednesday that General Mills, the manufacturer of Cheerios® brand cereal, were hit with a “serious warning” from The Food and Drug Administration over GM’s claims that Cheerios can “lower your cholesterol 4 percent in 6 weeks”. The FDA is warning GM that cholesterol-lowering claims can only be made only for drugs, and Cheerios are not FDA approved as such. If GM wants to advertise these claims, they must submit Cheerios to the same standards of other FDA-regulated drugs that are used to treat hypercholesterolemia.

Here is the article from The Wall Street Journal, and here is a copy of the FDA’s Warning Letter sent to GM back on May 5th. A few of the highlights from the FDA’s letter to GM’s CEO read:

“Based on claims made on your product’s label, we have determined that Cheerios® Toasted Whole Grain Oat Cereal is promoted for conditions that cause it to be a drug because the product is intended for use in the prevention, mitigation, and treatment of disease.”

“The label of your Cheerios® cereal claims a degree of risk reduction for coronary heart disease by stating that Cheerios® can lower cholesterol by four percent in six weeks. High blood total and LDL cholesterol levels are a surrogate endpoint for coronary heart disease; therefore, the cholesterol-lowering claims on the Cheerios® label attribute a degree of risk reduction for coronary heart disease, because if total and LD cholesterol levels decline, the risk of coronary heart disease declines as well.

“We have determined that your website www.wholegrainnation.com … bears the following unauthorized heath claims:

- Heart-healthy diets rich in whole grain foods can reduce the risk of heart disease.

- Including whole grain as part of a health diet may help reduce the risk of certain types of cancers.

- Regular consumption of whole grains as part of a low-fat diet reduces the risk for some cancers, especially cancers of the stomach and colon.”

I found it interesting that the FTC is the agency that came after Kellogg’s and the FDA is the agency that came down on GM. I would have guessed that the FDA would have played a role in the Kellogg’s case to some degree, but apparently the health claims made by Kellogg’s were not specific enough to warrant any warnings.

And at the same time, I would have thought that the FTC would have been on top of the Cheerios case because many of those complaints stem from GM’s advertising, packaging, and labeling. This leads me to believe that if GM was more subtle about their claims, they might have been able to continue to “fly beneath the radar” for another 12 years (the length of time that GM has been advertising cholesterol-related claims on their packaging.)

In any case, I think that the complaints brought up to GM by the FDA are reasonable and warranted. According to the WSJ article, the director of the FDA’s food-safety center said their agency has noticed a tendency by food companies to cross the line into the drug category by making specific health claims on packaging, and that the FDA will send out more letters to more violators as they find them. Now if only the FDA would kick it into higher gear against vitamin producers and supplement manufacturers, but that’s a whole other blog for another time.

In the end, despite all of the efforts by “Big Cereal” to try and get away with as many claims as possible so they can sell a few more boxes of their products, my family will continue to consume Cheerios and Mini-Wheats for the same reasons we’ve been buying them for years – nutrition and taste.

1 comment to Against The Grain

  • fredeliot2

    Since these are the two cereals we have in our house, I suspect that they may be a common combination. At least for skeptics who need the fiber.

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