If you can't believe the nutritional information printed on a Cheerios box, what can you believe?
No, this is not a shameless plug for a popular breakfast cereal. The question lies at the root of the reason the Food and Drug Administration had to call out General Mills, which makes Cheerios, for improper -- and illegal -- health claims.
Because consumers are influenced by claims they see on food labels, companies are restricted in what they can say to sell their products. "New and improved" is one thing, but claiming "You can lower your cholesterol 4 percent in six weeks," as General Mills did in the case of Cheerios, is different.
By claiming that the cereal is "clinically proven to lower cholesterol" along with similar assertions about the supposed cancer-fighting, heart-healthy properties of Cheerios, General Mills promoted what the government said amounted to "unauthorized health claims."
The FDA gives food and beverage makers leeway to make health claims backed by scientific studies but draws the line when the claim goes beyond what the science supports. General Mills said the Cheerios health claims have been approved for 12 years and the FDA's complaints deal with the language on the box.
That's it, exactly, responds the FDA. The statement on the cereal box that the product can reduce cholesterol qualifies the cereal, under current U.S. regulations, as an unapproved new drug.
It's not a question of safety, insisted agency officials, it's a matter of allowing only scientifically authenticated information on food packages.
The FDA is right. Consumers are pulled every which way with all sorts of advertising claims, but we believe they will welcome accuracy for a change.