Cheerios not THAT good for you, says FDA

If there's any food that's ubiquitous on a menu for little children, it's Cheerios. The little circles-of-oats are just the right size for little fingers; they're not likely to create a choking hazard before they disintegrate in a baby's mouth; and ohmygod they're whole grain! So good for you. But little children only stay little for a few years, and from there, General Mills (NYSE: GIS) found its market crunched on the kitchen floor like so many little underfoot o's. Solution: market it as a health food to adults!

This was a great idea, right? It's now the country's best-selling cereal. Its recent commercials, depicting adult Cheerios-eaters as holier-than-thou layabouts on the easiest cholesterol-lowering diet ever, have many problems (first, I didn't like any of the Cheerios eaters, they were terrifically superior and mean-spirited). News the FDA has ordered the company to alter its marketing hit the wires earlier this month; sadly, it's not because the actors are annoying. General Mills has been told its specific claims that Cheerios can lower cholesterol levels by 4% in six weeks amounts to marketing it as a drug and violates the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The cereal is also touted for its ability to reduce heart disease and reduce the risk of cancer. The agency said that claiming the cereal can treat hypercholesterolemia means "the product is a drug within the meaning of section 201(g)(1)(B) of the Act."In order to make these claims, Cheerios would have to be approved as a drug, obviously a ridiculous stretch of a food marketer's imagination. General Mills is treading on ground it should have already considered "hot lava"; the FDA has been extremely generous in allowing companies to make broad health claims on their packaging, as long as they're not specific. The FDA even points out its lax rules in the letter, writing, "FDA has issued a regulation authorizing a health claim associating soluble fiber from whole grain oats with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease... this regulation provides for the claim to include an optional statement, as part of the health claim, that the substance reduces the risk of coronary heart disease through the intermediate link of lowering blood total and LDL cholesterol."

Perhaps General Mills' marketers got hung up on the way to their workshop on "how to stretch the FDA's health claims rulings as far as humanly possible"; perhaps they were busy having their cholesterol tested. The most flagrant ad, shown below, shows a grandpa "getting ready for his test," subject: cholesterol, by eating Cheerios.

General Mills also broke rules in a claim on the company's website, stating, "Heart-healthy diets rich in whole grain foods, can reduce the risk of heart disease." See, the FDA authorizes companies only to make these claims in by combining fruits, vegetables, and fiber with whole grains, and by keeping one's diet low in saturated fats.

The whole kerfuffle, however, hinges on the ridiculous: the FDA's regulations make statements with which many food scientists disagree -- most importantly, many scientists now believe saturated fat isn't linked to heart disease at all. The fact that General Mills is hitching its marketing wagon so numerically to lowering cholesterol is already a rather extreme and desperate move; the fact that the FDA is quibbling with the wording of its web site claims about whole grain foods being good for one's health is silly.

Despite this marketing brouhaha, consumers are buying (literally and figuratively) the health claims; most interviewed believe that eating Cheerios is good for your heart. I don't agree, having studied writings by a number of food writers who posit that highly-processed breakfast cereals, no matter what sorts of whole grains are involved, are harmful to one's health simply because they're highly processed, using extremely high heat, pressure and chemicals that alter the grains' molecular structure too much.

An enormous food company making extreme claims about its food; a government agency complaining the company doesn't kowtow to its scientifically questionable and very detailed regulations; and a whole lot of consumers paying top dollar to eat Cheerios for breakfast. Even more reason to listen to Michael Pollan: "don't buy any food you've ever seen advertised."

Sarah Gilbert is a Wharton MBA, former investment banker, and food writer who cooks thick-cut organic oatmeal for her three little boys for breakfast.

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