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Is That Right? Frosted Mini-Wheats Keep Kids "Full and Focused"

(Reuters/Rick Wilking)

Ads for Kellogg's Frosted Mini-Wheats promise that kids who tank up on these fiber-rich cereals will be "full and focused" in preparation for the school day.

Turns out that "full and focused" claim is what's left after the Federal Trade Commission in April made Kellogg stop saying a breakfast of Kellogg's Mini-Wheats was "clinically shown to improve kids' attentiveness by nearly 20%." Kellogg agreed to stop including that and other misleading statements in its ads, product packages and Web sites.

Even toned down, the current ads still seem fuzzy. Check the special Frosted Mini-Wheats Web site and you can see the "clinical study" backing the focus claim. Turns out they gathered 73 kids ages 8 to 12 "from various backgrounds" and fed them for breakfast either a "filling breakfast of Frosted Mini-Wheats" (with 4 ounces of 2-percent milk) -- or water. Kids who got to eat had "23 percent better quality of memory," according to a set of memory and cognition tests the kids took, compared to those who went without breakfast. There was no comparing kids who ate Mini-Wheats to kids who ate something else for breakfast. Nor does the Web site share any numbers explaining how that "23 percent better" was calculated. In the end, the Web site lists a handful of studies suggesting that breakfast helps kids perform better in school -- a matter that, as I wrote last year, hasn't been fully established.

The "full" claim derives from fiber's capacity to keep bellies feeling full, which seems okay but kind of disingenuous when the comparison is to kids who only had water. The Web site (okay, a talking Mini-Wheat character on the Web site) observes that keeping a child full helps keep the kid focused. I suppose a growling stomach is a distraction, but there's nothing saying Mini-Wheats are better than -- or even as good as -- other breakfasts at preventing morning hunger.

What food ads have struck you the wrong way lately? Let's have a look at them.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 29, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , Is That Right? , Nutrition and Fitness  
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Rather than beating up on cereal companies, I'd like to see The Checkup take on the REAL phony advertising that is rampant on network and cable TV (and radio) these days. Infomercials and ads promising miracle cures for arthritis, heart disease, cancer, etc., footpads that "detoxify" the body, "probiotics," memory enhancers, miracle weight loss concoctions, "male enhancement" capsules--i.e., the people who try to lure the unwary or gullible into wasting money on snake oil. And in some cases, these people are not just nuisances, but truly dangerous, when they persuade those who are really sick to forgo medical treatment that might help or cure them in favor of useless nostrums that do nothing. (Remember laetrile?)

Sure, we should require cereal makers to be able to substantiate their claims. But at least their products are legitimate and provide some degree of nutrition, if nothing else. Claims for other food products, legitimate prescription and over-the-counter drugs, and dietary supplements ought to be verifiable, too. But the real quacks ought to be identified, tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail (or, better yet, prosecuted, convicted, fined, and thrown in jail).

Posted by: oldguy2 | May 29, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Hi, oldguy2:

Thanks for your good suggestions. For now I'm trying to keep Is That Right? focused on food, but I may branch out and will certainly consult your list when and if I do. I will take a look at some of the weight-loss products out there. Thanks again for chiming in.

Posted by: Jennifer LaRue Huget | May 29, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Actually, I have to disagree with oldguy2. I think that many people can recognize the real snake oil for what it is -- or at least enough to be on guard and look a little more closely. Respectable companies touting scientific-sounding "findings" in a misleading way is much more insidious, because you don't have those triggers that set off the warning flags in your head. The companies are, in effect, taking advantage of your trust in the brand to make nice-sounding claims that they know you won't look too closely at.

There are a lot of people who would never buy some "magic" diet pill they saw in an infomercial, who may nevertheless see this package and think, "Kellogg's? That's a respectable brand. Mini-wheats? That's shredded wheat, that's healthy. And look, they even have scientific studies that say it's better than those other cereals out there." That's misleading and unethical.

I'm a good example. I have a kid who's borderline ADHD. I don't like feeding her sugar in the AM, because of the whole up-and-down blood sugar swings. But she looooves the sugared cereal. So I've debated mini-wheats -- does the fiber and whole wheat offset the frosting? If I hear "clinically proven to improve focus 20%," I assume they compared it against other cereals, and think, yay, the benefits of the fiber must outweigh the added sugar, so this will be a great choice for her. Yeah, I'm going to assume the study was somewhat stacked -- like maybe they compared it to Captain Crunch or Trix instead of plain Cheerios. But without this column, I would never have realized that the "study" compared their product to WATER. That's just wrong.

Posted by: laura33 | May 29, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

To laura33:

I understand your concern. I have to say that my level of skepticism to advertised claims is pretty high to start with, especially when people start quoting psuedo-statistics. As an engineer with a substantial mathematics background, I am very aware of how test results can be manipulated. (How do you measure a "percentage increase" in focus, if you can even define "focus" quantitatively in the first place?) In this specific case, it's interesting (in an academic sense) to see how Kellogg's conducted its "tests" and interpreted the "results," but I wouldn't have believed them in the first place.

But I have also seen Internet sites that "rate" infomercials, with page after page of comments from people who were scammed by these snake-oil salesmen, so I do not have the same confidence as you do about individuals' abilities, in general, to distinguish the real from the fake. And as far as credibility is concerned--one well-known infomercial uses a well-respected TV personality, who really ought to know better (yes, Hugh Downs, I'm talking about you) to hawk its bogus cures. Another infomercial for a supplement that supposedly cures arthritis has an MD touting its efficacy. And while you may know that putting wet pads on the bottom of your feet is not going to help your health, there are apparently lots of people out there who think "detoxification" is the real deal. So the snake-oil folks know how to pull those sorts of strings, too. And I have to believe that they're successful--the fact that they keep showing up on TV suggests that they're attracting customers. (I also think it's interesting that at the bottom of this page on The Post's website are links to ads for two diets and Carnation Instant Breakfast. I wonder how accurate those ads are? And the website has also carried links to the sorts of bogus "best kept secrets" books noted above.)

I applaud The Post (and this particular feature) for shining a light on questionable claims; certainly, Kellogg's and General Mills (for its Cheerios ads touting cholesterol reduction) ought to be called to account for their actions. But in my view, these are only the tip of a very large iceberg--and some of the other aspects of this issue are far more insidious than how much (if at all) a certain cereal will help your kid's academic performance.

Posted by: oldguy2 | May 29, 2009 3:25 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad you make the effort to challenge ads such as this one by Kellog's. How about some of the ones your paper serves up on it's web site? Currently the page with your article is showing me an ad stating "I lost 35 lbs of stomach fat in 1 month by obeying this 1 rule". Such ads appear regularly on the Washington Post, NYTimes and other reputable sites. While the ad doesn't surprise me, I am surprised that your paper would allow your ad servers ( in this case) to serve up such patently ridiculous ads. [A typical person expends about 2500 calories per day. At 3500 calories per pound of fat, one would need to eat nothing and exercise rigorously for about two hours a day to achieve this weight loss.] This raises an interesting question. Is the advertising staff of a newspaper/webpaper in any way responsible for reviewing the content of the ads that it accepts for publication on its pages?

Posted by: kanesf | May 29, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

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