by Marion Nestle
Sep 15 2007

Lower Your Cholesterol with Cheerios? Oh Please

My neighborhood grocery store is displaying a wall of Cheerios boxes with this banner over the inevitable heart: “You can lower your cholesterol 4% in 6 weeks (see back for details).” I immediately turned to the back to learn that “Cheerios is the only leading cold cereal clinically proven to lower cholesterol. A clinical study showed that eating two 1 and 1/2 cup servings daily of Cheerios cereal reduced cholesterol when eaten as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol.” I like Cheerios, but come on? What clinical study? A footnote gives the reference to a study published in Nutrition in Clinical Care (1998;1:6-12). I immediately went to look for it but alas, the journal ceased publication in 2005 and is not available online or in the NYU or Cornell libraries. Want to take a guess at who might have funded the study? If anyone has a copy, please send. The FDA used to be able to demand serious scientific substantiation for health claims like this one, but no more. Congress says one study is sufficient, no matter how old, designed, or paid for. The courts say advertising is a form of free speech and protected by the First Amendment. Caveat emptor.

Update: Andy Bellatti of Small Bites reminds me that as always, Center for Science in the Public Interest was there first. Nutrition Action Healthletter talked about the study–surprise! funded by General Mills–in 2005.

  • WaltK

    Kudos to you for looking into this. In my humble experience any study that says ‘fiber is good’, ‘saturated fat is bad’ or ‘whole grains save lives’ seems to get a free pass. Everyone nods sagely, and accepts the data uncritically, and cites the study in their own work.

    CSPI, however, is sort of guilty of that themselves, from what I’ve seen. They’re crusaders, not scientists.

  • I tend to agree with WaltK’s comments, particularly on CSPI.

    Cheerios cereal is banned from my house after I recorded my highest blood glucose reading ever from a food after eating a simple bowl of Cheerios and milk – 275 after 45 minutes! It gave me a nasty low later, too. Whole grain or not, it is practically a predigested food and is absorbed as glucose quite quickly.

    Imagine what it might do to triglycerides. I bet it wouldn’t be good.

    And cholesterol? So what? Cholesterol is not causitive of cardiovascular disease anyway, despite all the whoopla about it. The Cheerios ad people just figured out that they could ride on the Lipitor coattails. If it wasn’t for statins being such blockbuster sellers, I think the cholesterol theory would have died a natural death years ago. But it has been resuscitated over and over like a bad ER episode. It’s time for a natural death to that theory. We have wasted too much time and money (oh, so much money!) on ad hoc theories that label cholesterol “bad” .

  • Hugh Burns

    Can General Mills exercise its free speech retroactively? The citation is in a journal from 1998, the study was funded in 2005?

  • Kirk Dolan

    In response to the question about what studies have been done on oats, go to a 1998 publication:

    and search for “oats”
    I am pasting it in below. In 1998 there were already 37 studies. Feel free to look them up yourself.

    Also go to to read a 2005 paper which cites
    26. Department of Health and Human Services, U. S. Food and Drug Administration
    (1997) Food labeling: health claims; oats and coronary heart disease. Fed. Register 62: 3584–3601.

    Oats. Oat products are a widely studied dietary source of the cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber b-glucan. There is now significant scientific agreement that consumption of this particular plant food can reduce total and low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, thereby reducing the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). For this, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) awarded the first food-specific health claim in January 1997 (DHHS/FDA, 1997), in response to a petition submitted by the Quaker Oats Company (Chicago, Ill.).

    In its health claim petition, the Quaker Oats Company summarized 37 human clinical intervention trials con-ducted between 1980 and 1995. The majority of these studies revealed statistically significant reductions in total and LDL-cholesterol in hypercholesterolemic subjects consuming either a typical American diet or a low fat diet. The daily amount of oat bran or oatmeal consumed in the above studies ranged from 34 g to 123 g. Quaker Oats determined that 3 g of b-glucan would be required to achieve a 5% reduction in serum cholesterol, an amount equivalent to approximately 60 g of oatmeal or 40 g of oat bran (dry weight). Thus, a food bearing the health claim must contain 13 g of oat bran or 20 g oatmeal, and provide, without fortification, at least 1.0 g of b-glucan per serving. In February of 1998, the soluble fiber health claim was ex-tended to include psyllium fiber.

  • Kathryn

    The way Cheerios lowers cholesterol is by keeping you from eating eggs.