Monday, October 26, 2009

Does Cheerios Lower Cholesterol?

Cheerios upped the ante this summer by advancing their "lowers cholesterol 4% in 6 weeks" claim to "lowers cholesterol 10% in one month."

The abstract for the study upon which this new claim is being made is:
Ready-to-eat Oat Cereal, as Part of a Reduced Energy Diet, Reduces Low-density Lipoprotein Cholesterol and Waist Circumference in Overweight and Obese Adults, FASEB.

The study is still unpublished. Results were presented in April of this year at the Experimental Biology Meeting in New Orleans.

Of note:
  • The abstract shows 8.7% reduction, not 10% reduction.
  • The 8.7% reduction was for LDL cholesterol.
  • The 8.7% reduction was achieved not only by eating 3 cups of Cheerios a day, but by reducing calories (by ~500 calories/day) and by reducing fat intake.
  • The control group (which did not eat Cheerios but ate the reduced calorie, low-fat diet) also experienced lower LDL cholesterol (4.3%) and lower total cholesterol (2.9%).
  • The 8.7% reduction is, in fact, a 4.4% reduction when compared to control group.
  • There was no difference between groups in weight loss, HDL cholesterol, or triglycerides.
The following point makes me question the researchers' motives:
  • The control group didn't just not eat the Cheerios, but it consumed "low-fiber control foods." It would be interesting to see the fiber types and intakes of both groups, before and during the intervention. How much was the control group's fiber intake suppressed? (For the sake of a positive result?)
The reduction in cholesterol did not occur outside of the context of a reduced-calorie, reduced-fat diet. The FDA sent General Mills a warning letter in May, less than 3 weeks after the results of the above study were presented, addressing this point:
"[Your claim] leaves out any reference to fruits and vegetables, to fiber content, and to keeping the levels of saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet low. Therefore, your claim does not convey that all these factors together help to reduce the risk of heart disease and does not enable the public to understand the significance of the claim in the context of the total daily diet."
- FDA Warning Letter to General Mills, Inc. 5/5/09

"[Cheerios] is not generally recognized as safe and effective for use in preventing or treating hypercholesterolemia or coronary heart disease. Therefore, under section 505(a) of the Act [21 U.S.C. § 355(a)], it may not be legally marketed with the above claims in the United States."
- FDA Warning Letter to General Mills, Inc. 5/5/09
One conclusion you might draw from this study is that relative to a low-fiber diet (we don't know how low), Cheerios may reduce LDL cholesterol by ~4%. That's like saying you're going to study thirst; you withhold fluid from the control group, feed Coke to the intervention group, and find that Coke prevents thirst.

Not only was this study funded by General Mills, it was designed by their researchers - who knew exactly what they were doing when they set the parameters.


virginia said...

The Cheerios Legend

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend", and create a study to support it.

How I wish I had been the one to say that.

Here's the guy who did:

Dr. William Davis said...

Great analysis, Bix!

In my book, Cheerios is yet another of the perverse "take a healthy ingredient, case it in garbage, call it healthy" genre.

My experience has been the precise opposite of this "study": Cheerios cauase blood sugar to skyrocket (as high as 350 mg/dl in diabetics who monitor blood sugar) and it increases the dreaded small fraction of LDL cholesterol, the sort that really causes heart disease but is not evident by looking at standard calculated ("Friedewald") LDL.

Carrie Oliver said...

If the FDA states so clearly that Cheerios "is not generally recognized as safe and effective fur use in preventing.... coronary heart disease," why do they allow General Mills to use a heart-shaped bowl on the label?

Ronald said...

I think Barley would also lower cholesterol because of the soluable fiber then beer, a barley beverage, could be called "Heart-healthy".

Bix said...

General Mills knew that label was dicey. The FDA doesn't allow food claims with numbers in them, e.g. "4% in 6 wks" or "10% in 1 month." These are "degrees of risk reduction" that are applicable to drugs, not food.

I think they went with it anyway because they knew any fine they'd have to pay would be less than any profit they'd make once the message had entered the social psyche.

RB said...

There were some studies that suggested oat bran reduced cholesterol. Cheerios picked up on this and added marketing hype which distorts everything.

From the Mayo Clinic Web Site:
Oatmeal contains soluble fiber, which reduces your low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the "bad" cholesterol. Soluble fiber is also found in such foods as kidney beans, apples, pears, psyllium, barley and prunes.

Cheerios is one of the better breakfast cereals. If it is not a healthy food what breakfast cereal is? Oatmeal? If all breakfast cereals are bad, what is the alternative for a healthy breakfast? Bacon and eggs? Yogurt? Fresh fruit and cottage cheese? Grapes and walnuts? Kidney beans?

Bix said...

"...what is the alternative for a healthy breakfast?"

Some of those are good alternatives. I like the "grapes and walnuts" one, except I eat my grapes dried. Dried figs too. And sweet potatoes, I've been on a roll with sweet potatoes (or yams), and squashes like kabocha and buttercup (not butternut), the dark orange ones with dryer flesh. I also do this thing with lentils and red quinoa that's breakfast-worthy.

Unknown said...

You have to wonder when the sheople out there that believe anything they are told are going to wake up.

James Young said...

In this fast paced world we have today, many of us are leading lives which demand us to give much of our time to our work and it causes us to neglect doing some things we need to do like we don’t have time to prepare the foods we have to eat, for one. Because of that, we are forced to eat fast food stuffs which unfortunately are not so healthy for us, despite their being delicious and all. Most of them are cholesterol laden and if taken in large numbers as most of us are doing, we have for ourselves several life-threatening diseases caused by this unknowing compound.

Anonymous said...

I am eating more Cheerios, and according to home tests, my Cholesterol has gone down to normal levels. However the key is not putting the Cholesterol right back in with "whole", "reduced fat" or partially skim milk. Even the "skim-miest" of skim milk has about 5 mg of Cholesterol.

Cheerios with soy milk or some kind of non-animal milk is best, or at least totally skim milk.

I wish Cheerios would put more emphasis on this.