Cheerios health, nutrition benefits less than advertised, FDA says

By Catherine Larkin and Duane Stanford
Bloomberg News / May 13, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Cheerios, the world's best-selling cereal, isn't so wholesome as its maker General Mills Inc. contends, US regulators said.

Packaging and Internet advertising for the toasted oats violate federal law with promises to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, according to a warning letter posted on the Food and Drug Administration's website yesterday. General Mills, ordered to fix the issues or risk product seizure, said it would try to resolve the letter with the regulator.

The FDA allows food companies to make nutritional claims backed by scientific studies, and restricts wording. Health claims have helped food and beverage makers boost sales as more consumers struggle with obesity. Food companies are testing the regulator's "relatively subjective view" of how much scientific proof is needed, said Christopher Shanahan, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan Inc. in Mountain View, Calif.

"We certainly don't have any issues with the safety of Cheerios," Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in an interview. "We just believe that the labeling on this particular product has gone beyond what the science supports."

The FDA started its Cheerios review after the National Consumers League, a Washington-based advocacy group, complained in a September letter that the cereal's health claims made it out to be a drug, Sundlof said.

The warning letter represented the FDA's first action against a "mainstream food product" in more than nine years and showed the agency is exerting its authority under President Obama, said Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in Washington.

"Consumers are influenced by food claims on labels," Silverglade said in a telephone interview. "To the extent that they're misleading, it's as bad as a doctor giving out poor medical advice."

Cheerios was introduced in 1941 as the world's first ready-to-eat oat cereal, according to the product's website. The honey-nut variety came out in 1979, followed by apple cinnamon, multigrain, and frosted flavors. The cereal box has said for more than two years that the product can "lower your cholesterol 4 percent in 6 weeks," General Mills said.

"Cheerios, which is the largest franchise in the category, is also one of the fastest-growing brands in the category," Powell said during the call. "So that's a great story."

The company believes the science behind the cereal's claims "is not in question," Tom Forsythe, a spokesman for the cereal company, said in an e-mailed statement. "The FDA is interested in how the Cheerios cholesterol-lowering information is presented on the Cheerios package and website. We look forward to discussing this with FDA and to reaching a resolution."