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Cheerios: The FDA's tempest in a cereal box?

Agency takes issue with health claims.

By Karen Datko Oct 1, 2009 4:30PM

The Food and Drug Administration has smacked down General Mills for its claims on cereal boxes and a company Web site that eating Cheerios can reduce cholesterol and help prevent heart disease. But the way the FDA went about it seems bizarre.

The FDA says the wording in the health claims can be used only about an approved drug. Thus, Cheerios must be a drug and must submit an application to be considered as such.

The nation's most popular cereal is a drug? What's going on here?

Something got lost in all the bureaucratese and lawyer-speak. Here's what really happened, according to The Associated Press and other news sources:

General Mills, between the Cheerios boxes and the Web site, has made some pretty substantial health claims for its product:

  • Eating Cheerios can lower cholesterol by 4% in six weeks and can reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • "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." (That may be so, but General Mills isn't allowed to say that under federal rules without mentioning other parts of a healthy diet, like high fiber, veggies and fruit.)

The FDA sets limits on what kinds of claims can be made about the health benefits of foods. (Thank goodness.) It says General Mills has exceeded those and is making claims that are restricted to approved drugs, and it wants General Mills to knock it off.

General Mills says it will work with the FDA to address the wording in question, while standing up for the health benefits of its product. In fact, the Los Angeles Times reports, "On April 20, General Mills announced results of a clinical study that showed eating two daily servings of Cheerios (1 1/2 cups each) can reduce cholesterol 10% in just a month."

Meanwhile, the FDA comes across as the cereal police. "It's a ridiculous thing for the FDA to go ‘all Rambo' over marketing language that's been used for two years," wrote Vicki McClure Davidson at Frugal Café Blog Zone, a conservative blog "with frugality mixed in."

What's been missed in all the hubbub and complaining about FDA overkill is that the FDA appears ready to crack down on the health claims made on behalf of lots of food products. The Daily Green said, "This is a strong reminder to consumers that the health claims on food packaging can often be misleading."

Here's what we do: Whenever we hear health claims about any product, the skeptical part of our brain goes on high alert.

Published May 13, 2009



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