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Cereal as Superfood? Perhaps Not

Oatmeal Envy

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

They’ve taken all the fun out of cereal boxes. That’s not all. They’ve imposed big fines on the one who tried to make them fun and threatened another. Of course the cereal companies are partly to blame.

Those of advanced years remember with what pleasure the new cereal box’s advent at the breakfast table was greeted by the young. In families with more than one child that one prize led to breakfast time controversy, as the siblings tried to determine who the recipient of the coveted object should be. Among the treasured prizes were such things as decoder rings that enabled the wearer to decode secret messages should the decoder happen upon any. Other prizes included plastic airplanes that purported to be models of actual airplanes but bore only the faintest resemblance to any actual airplane.

In the 1950’s there were even more exciting trinkets including the Atomic Ring and the Meteorite Ring, the characteristics of which are charmingly described by Edward Meyer in the College Hill Review. Recent events suggest that cereal companies may want to return to the days of freebies in boxes instead of health claims on boxes. Consider the plight of Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats and their recent encounter with the Federal Trade Commission.

Those who manufacture “Bite Size” Frosted Mini Wheats distinguishing them from other cereals that are presumably not “Bite Size” (although exactly how to describe the size of a Post Toastie or a Rice Krispie I’ll leave professional advertisers to decide) have long since abandoned the practice of including the eagerly awaited toy in the box designed to appeal to the young consumer. This is the 21st Century and cereal companies believe that in order to attract buyers it’s the nutritional rather than the amusement value that counts.

Kellogg’s did research and, according to the Federal Trade Commission, claimed in its advertising that the attention span of children who ate Frosted Mini Wheats improved nearly 20 percent over children who skipped breakfast. (Some may wonder if there is a scientific disconnect in that conclusion but I’ll leave that to those smarter than I to figure out.) The FTC found that Kellogg’s study showed an improvement in only 11 per cent of the students studied and the attention span of only one-half of those students increased 20 per cent. As a result of this, Kellogg’s will be subject to a fine of up to $18,000. It would probably have been better off sticking to decoder rings and tiny plastic airplanes. Since misery loves company, Kellogg’s is probably delighted with the plight of its rival, General Mills.

General Mills has been taken to task not by the Federal Trade Commission but by the Food and Drug Administration. (Why two different agencies have jurisdiction over seemingly identical infractions is unclear. It may be because Cheerios’ infraction affects those with heart conditions rather than attention deficit disorder. That suggests that many cereals are only half a generation removed from snake oil.)

General Mills has apparently been suffering from Oatmeal Envy. According to the FDA it has been misleading those seeking to reduce their cholesterol. It has long been known that oatmeal as well as certain other foods can reduce cholesterol. In a study released by the Mayo Clinic describing the foods that lower cholesterol, however, Cheerios was not included. Undeterred by its non-inclusion, for the last two years General Mills proclaimed that those who faithfully eat the cheerful little “O”s can reduce their cholesterol by 4 per cent within six weeks. In so doing, it has awakened an FDA that spent a happy 8 years under George Bush’s administration, sleeping.

In a letter to General Mills, the re-awakened FDA advised the company that: “Based on claims made on your product’s label, we have determined that your Cheerios® Toasted Whole Grain Oat Cereal is promoted for conditions that cause it to be a drug because the product is intended for use in the prevention, mitigation, and treatment of disease.” The letter goes on to advise the company that Cheerios “may not be legally marketed with the above claims in the United States without an approved new drug application.” General Mills says its science is strong and it looks forward “to discussing this with FDA.” If it loses it can always put decoder rings back in the packages.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer living in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at: brauchli1@comcast.net