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The FDA, Making the World Safe -- From Cheerios

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Of the countless things the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could be doing to help make the nation's food supply safer, here's one issue the agency recently chose to focus on. The FDA a week ago issued a warning to the folks who make Cheerios to stop printing on boxes claims that eating the popular, life-preserver shaped breakfast cereal can lower cholesterol 4 percent in six weeks.

It's not that the claim's not valid: The science behind it appears to be fairly sound.

The issue is that only drug-makers are allowed to say their products have specific, measurable health benefits -- and with good reason. Drugs are put through all kinds of testing before the FDA okays claims on their behalf. Cheerios are a food, not a drug, and so their manufacturer can't make specific health claims for them unless it, too, tests them as drugs and submits its science for FDA scrutiny. (For more on the complicated world of health claims for foods, read Post science reporter David Brown's recent article about Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice.)

It's taken the FDA two years to catch up with the Cheerios claim; that's apparently how long it's been listed on the boxes. General Mills was given 15 days to tell the FDA how it intends to address the problem. (The cereal box was also taken to task for omitting reference to fruits and vegetables in addition to whole grains as part of the package that provides potential disease-fighting fiber.)

In a market in which manufacturers are allowed to tout whole-grain goodness for products (including many brands of bread and other baked goods) with scarcely any whole grain or, for that matter, much goodness, why on Earth would the FDA go after Cheerios -- a product that is made with whole grain and hardly any sugar, both attributes that the government should be promoting with all its might?

Of course, I know: It's the principle of the thing, and everybody has to play by the rules.

In the meantime, Cheerios has moved on to a new and improved claim. Its Web site says, "Wow! Exciting news from Cheerios. Cheerios helps lower cholesterol 10% in one month." The copy continues, "A new study proves Cheerios cereal plus a reduced calorie diet that is low in fat can help naturally lower bad cholesterol about 10% in one month." And in the Q&A section appears this:


A: This is still the same great Cheerios cereal that can help naturally lower cholesterol through the power of oats. This study is different from the original Cheerios study because it incorporated a reduced calorie diet. A reduced calorie diet can help promote healthy weight loss, which can help lower cholesterol. The new study shows that Cheerios cereal, as part of a reduced calorie diet low in fat, can help lower cholesterol even more than diet alone.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 13, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , General Health , Health Policy , Nutrition and Fitness  
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Aside from the phoney cholesterol health claim, the issue with dry boxed extruded cereals like cheerios is they are high glycemic - raising blood sugar. Also the extrusion process - utilizing high heat and high pressure - damages the proteins and fatty acids. Dry boxed cereals are like margarine and trans fats; highly processed with adverse metabolic effects. Fresh eggs are a better breakfast - complete protein, non-blood sugar raising, and packed with nutrition.

Posted by: AlWatson | May 13, 2009 8:32 AM | Report abuse

I guess General Mills failed to kick in the bucks when told to by Obama and are unwilling to go along with his socialist plans. Typical Chicago stuff. You won't play ball? then get ready for a visit from the building inspectors and fire marshals. Obama is a cheap, crooked thug and shakedown artist.

Cheerios? Cheerios? This is all they have to do?

Hopium Dopium

Atlas shrugged 1/20/09

Posted by: JoeDBrown | May 13, 2009 9:00 AM | Report abuse

"Aside from the phony cholesterol health claim"

How in the world did you come to that conclusion from the article? It appears that the FDA is saying that you haven't submitted the appropriate test documentation so you cannot say it. The article also appears to be saying what American taxpayers have been saying for years; stop being politically motivated and do some good. Given that these administrations are filled with political appointees, how do I know that this was not put up by a competitor who was a big contributer?
Personally I don't give a whit what Cheerios or any product says. Are they going after Quaker Oats next?

Posted by: Ethicist | May 13, 2009 9:07 AM | Report abuse

I don't eat boxed cereals, especially Cheerios. I found that about 2 hours after eating that stuff I get so weak and shaky I feel like I'm having a seizure. I don't put sugar on it, just milk. Any explanation why I react that way? Yogurt and a piece of fruit works for me.

Posted by: Baltimore11 | May 13, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Your reaction to having Cheerios in the morning is interesting.
Yuck! :-) (for me)
I enjoy Cheerios each morning with sugar and milk, sometimes with fresh bananas, and have no reaction.
However, as I have aged, I have noticed that peanut butter gives me the same shaky reaction you experience.
I have no clue why.
Maybe I've developed an allergy to peanuts.
I used to love peanut butter and jam or peanut butter and bananas sandwiches.
But that's the way it goes.
I will say this about my morning breakfast.
Combined with my statin and my osteoperosis medication each week, it's nice to know the Cheerios breakfast works in tandem.
That's a rare surprise in this world where most food surprises are negative, not positive.

Posted by: Judy-in-TX | May 13, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Why not just eat oatmeal? Preferably non-quick or instant. I'd be willing to bet it's even better than Cheerios.

The real danger with Cheerios advertising is that it's so bold that some might believe that a 4% reduction is significant if you have high cholesterol. It's not. If your LDL is 200 and you lower it to 192 you're still in trouble.

Posted by: WillyHSmith | May 13, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

Are there not more important food issues the FDA can investigate?

Posted by: tonyholst | May 13, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

The FDA's logic or lack there of states that if any product can lower cholesterol or reduce high blood pressure, etc. etc. it must be a drug, and if it is a drug then it falls under our power.

This power mad tool of the drug industry must be constrained from behaving like the Gestapo. They have ruined thousands of companies attempting to sell herbal medicine, health food and vitamins with this same logic.

Many skeptics of this process believe that the FDA wants the nation to be sick so the pharmaceutical industry can "cure" them. The profits of the drug industry are so obscene they have the cash to squash the competition and the FDA is a willing helpmate.

Posted by: alance | May 13, 2009 10:24 PM | Report abuse

I hope General Mills takes the FDA to court over this. It is very clearly a violation of General Mills' Constitutional rights to free speech. If their claims were fallacious, then I'd side with the FDA. However, seeing as they are factual, and have scientific validation, General Mills has every right to make that claim.

Then, after G.Mills has taken the FDA to the cleaners, we should have a citizen's class action suit against the FDA for waste fraud and abuse for wasting taxpayer dollars pursuing good guys and ignoring real criminals.

Posted by: mhoust | May 14, 2009 9:35 AM | Report abuse

Is AlWatson a chicken rancher, or did he/she fail to read the article? He/she might also want to read the back of the Cheerios box -- very low sugar content. His/her statement is true about most other cereals, but not about Cheerios. As far has eating an egg every day, my doctor would have a fit! I am restricted to two per week, and the latest research that I read said that women should never eat more than six a week.

Posted by: marmac5 | May 14, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Judy in TX: I thought the shaky reaction was because of a sugar spike or drop. Cheerios contain maltose, corn sugar and fructose, all forms of sugar. I got the same reaction when I ate a Three Muskateers bar on a empty stomach. Never do that.

Check the ingredients on a box of Cheerios -- see if trisodium phosphate is listed. That's a chemical used to clean walls before painting. Imagine what it's doing to your innards.

Posted by: Baltimore11 | May 14, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

the claim that lowering cholesterol improves health is phony. if you are unhealthy and improve your health, your HDL/LDL ratio as well as many other things will change. but it has never been established what is the cause and what is the effect. by analogy: we can say that healthy people have a high VO2 max (or lower resting heart rate, or whatever); so if I dope your blood to improve those things does that mean you are now more healthy? of course not. "cheerios" is an artificial, highly processed, chemically enhanced, sugar added, fake food. an oat grain is not. an egg is not. guess which one will never go in my kids mouth? eat real food, get healthy, and your blood chemistry will take care of itself without drugs or fake food.

Posted by: jwin74 | May 14, 2009 4:08 PM | Report abuse

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