Will Cheerios really help lower your cholesterol?
According to General Mills, the breakfast cereal product known as Cheerios has a significant impact on the cholesterol levels of regular consumers of the popular breakfast cereal. The benefit supposedly comes from the whole grains found in Cheerios. Unfortunately for General Mills, the FDA has some harsh words for any product marketing itself as a drug without proper approval. Does this mean that Cheerios doesn’t lower cholesterol, or is this simply a dispute over language? Is the science behind Cheerios supposed ability to lower your cholesterol still valid?
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it seems the “science” behind Cheerios ability to lower cholesterol is a bit suspect. On the box of Cheerios, references are made to a study published in the journal Nutrition in Clinical Care in 1998. Don’t try to look for this journal — it no longer exists, and can’t be found in archives either online or in libraries. Believe me, I tried to look for this article for quite a while. However, thanks to our friends at the Nutrition Action Healthletter (which occasionally acts as a kind of watchdog group for food and drug claims) we know who funded this particular study. That’s right — you guessed it — General Mills. I find it difficult to trust a scientific study of a particular product that is funded by the parent company of that product.
While Cheerios is a healthy alternative to other more sugary breakfast cereals, I don’t think we can safely say that it “helps lower cholesterol”. I’d like to see an unbiased study before I make that decision for myself. If you’re wondering how this could possibly be legal — the high courts of this country have ruled that advertising is a form of free speech, and therefore is protected by the First amendment. Congress has ruled on the issue of the use of a single study to back up health claims, and has decided that one study is sufficient, no matter who funds it, or how old that study is.
Back to the FDA and their issue with Cheerios. According to several media outlets, the FDA has issued a warning letter to the makers of Cheerios, accusing the cereal’s maker of “serious violations” of FDA rules that regulate the marketing of drugs. At issue is advertising made by General Mills, parent company of Cheerios, which makes a claim that Cheerios can help with cholesterol problems.
The ads claim that in just six weeks “eating Cheerios could help lower your cholesterol up to 4%,” but that is a dangerous claim for a food item to make. In fact, by making that claim about the Cheerios product, the FDA says General Mills becomes a drug retailer. Any product that makes a specific claim of a health benefit is considered a “drug”. No drug can be marketed for sale in the United States without FDA approval. While it may put a smile on your face to think of Cheerios as a drug, General Mills has been walking a thin line with this claim for a while now.
According to General Mills, the FDA gave the “OK” to the Cheerios marketing program years ago. Specifically, General Mills claims they got permission to tout the health benefits of whole grains in 1997. The FDA, however, says it never approved the specific claim.
The FDA letter warned General Mills, in part, that it was their “responsibility to ensure that all of your products are in compliance with the Act and its implementing regulations.” And if the company failed to “promptly correct the violations” then the government may have to take “enforcement action without further notice.” Strong words for a breakfast cereal. Still, the FDA has a point. If we were to allow products to be marketed as drugs without proper approval of the FDA, we’d be in real trouble. Imagine drinking Pepsi Bismol or sitting down to a dinner of Roast Beef and Viagra-infused potatoes. Okay, so maybe I’m going a little overboard. No matter, General Mills will have to fix the problem or face serious government intervention.
This warning letter is a huge move for the FDA, and marks the first action of that agency against a “mainstream food product” in almost a decade. This move also proves that the FDA is ready to exert its authority under President Barack Obama.
Apparently, General Mills’ cereal sales rose 13 percent in the third quarter, aided in large part by the marketing of Cheerios’ health benefits. Industry analysts are seriously concerned about this type of advertising. Looking at the boost in sales, it is obvious that consumers are influenced pretty heavily by what is written on food labels. Especially when it comes to a buzz word like “cholesterol” — who wouldn’t want a relatively cheap product to help lower their cholesterol? When a product misleads consumers, even if unintentionally, it is doing harm. In many ways, a box of Cheerios making a flase claim about its ability to lower cholesterol is akin to a doctor giving out bad medical advice. Let’s hope that General Mills can correct the problem before their “license” is revoked.