Millions of Americans have been eating Cheerios or Quaker Oatmeal -- each popular for more than 50 years -- because they like the taste. Television commercials over the years have tended to market both as nutritious breakfast cereals for children.
In fact, adults would benefit from eating plenty of both cereals, their manufacturers proclaimed in separate press conferences this week. As Ann Simonds, marketing director for Cheerios, put it: Such oat-based foods make it possible to fight heart disease "with a bowl and spoon."
Over the past 3 decades, at least 37 separate studies of people have demonstrated that oat meal and oat bran could reduce serum cholesterol, a major risk factor in heart disease. These reductions have been seen not only in people with heart disease but also in healthy individuals -- even those already consuming a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet.
Over time, chemists isolated the active ingredient in these products, a soluble, bran-based fiber known as beta-glucan (SN: 5/26/90, p. 330).
Having provided the funds and oats used in many of those human studies, Quaker Oats Co. was confident that its products could play a role in fighting heart disease with diet. Federal law, however, prohibited it from saying as much on the cereals' labels or in advertising.
So in March 1994, Quaker decided to test the regulatory waters. It petitioned the Food and Drug Administration under the then 4-year-old Nutrition Labeling and Education Act to authorize the first health-based claim for a manufactured food rather than one of its ingredients.
This week, FDA complied. The ruling it issued in the Federal Register allows manufacturers to say that soluble fiber from whole oats, oat bran, or oat flour "as part of a low-saturated-fat, low-cholesterol diet, may reduce the risk of heart disease."
However, manufacturers can use this claim on a cereal's label if -- and only if -- a single-serving portion contains:
The decision allows Quaker to place this health claim on nearly 15 varieties of oatmeals or oat bran designed to be eaten warm. In addition, another three cold Quaker cereals qualify for the new label: Toasted Oatmeal, Oatmeal Squares, and Oat Bran.
General Mills' now makes five types of Cheerios products. Only the traditional version, which comes in the bright yellow box, meets the new FDA labeling requirements. On the day of the FDA decision, General Mills already had a prototype redesigned box (shown here) ready to show reporters. With more than $360 million in sales last year for this product alone, Simonds says that her company hopes to expand this already strong market share by heavily advertising its potential health benefits for adults.
And what about the rest of the nearly 300 other cereals that now pack the shelves of U.S. supermarkets? Few will meet the new FDA criteria, notes fiber-nutrition expert Joanne L. Slavin at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. But rest assured, she says, those that do will let consumers know -- immediately.
Over the past 2 decades, "I've watched interest in dietary fiber go up and down based on some pretty minimal studies," Slavin says. At its recent zenith in the late 1980s, she recalls, there was even an oat-bran beer.
However, few of the faddish new products contained sufficient beta-glucan to offer a health benefit, she notes.
The new FDA ruling not only should keep such spurious claimants from hopping on the oat/beta-glucan bandwagon but also help consumers identify the quantity of a labeled product necessary to offer a genuine benefit. For instance, a 1-cup bowl of Cheerios provides the beta-glucan requirement. So does just 3 tablespoons of dry oatmeal (rolled oats) or 2 tablespoons of oat bran.
However, notes Jur Strobos, a consulting nutrition specialist and former policy director of the FDA, despite their potential health benefits, such cereals are "not a magic bullet." A diet high in fat can negate any benefits from the oats, he notes. Moreover, one can't sample a little of these foods now and again and hope to make a difference, he says. "The data suggest very strongly that you need between 3 and 4 grams a day in order to see a [significant cholesterol-lowering] effect." Even better yet, he says, would be 6 or 7 grams.
Not even Quaker Oats expects Americans to sit down to three bowls of oatmeal every day. Indeed, some people gag at the idea of even one. So the company's dietitians have been busy developing recipes to incorporate beta-glucan rich bran and whole oats into a host of menu offerings. Two are shared below. More are available on the company's website (see sources below).
Cheerios has also developed a few recipes. One is given below. Others can be obtained by E-mail from the company's consumer services division (see sources below).
Preheat oven to 350 °F.
In large bowl, combine all ingredients. Mix lightly but thoroughly. Shape turkey mix into 9 x 5-inch loaf within a 9 x 13-inch baking pan (or place on rack of a broiler). Bake 1 hour, or until thermometer inside the loaf registers 170° and center is no longer pink. Let loaf stand 5 minutes before slicing.
Nutritional information per serving:
Preheat oven to 425°.
Line 12 medium-size muffin cups with paper cups or spray bottoms with no-stick cooking spray. Combine dry ingredients and mix well. Combine milk, egg whites, honey, and oil, then add to dry ingredients and mix well. Fill prepared muffin cups 3/4 full. Bake for 15 to 17 minutes, or until golden brown.
Variations: Stir in 1/2 C. fresh or frozen blueberries, or 1 medium-size, mashed, ripe banana.
Nutritional information per serving:
Preheat oven to 400 °F.
Line jelly roll pan (15.5 x 10.5 x 1 inch) with aluminum foil. Mix all ingredients except chicken, milk, and margarine. Dip chicken into milk, then roll in cereal mix until well coated. Place chicken in pan and drizzle with margarine.
Bake until done, about 20 to 25 minutes. (Above 3,500 feet elevation, bake about 30 minutes.)
Food and Drug Administration. 1997. Food labeling: Health claims; oats and coronary heart disease (final rule). Federal Register Jan. 23.
Raloff, J. 1994. Making the best of oat bran. Science News 145(March 19):190.
_____. 1994. Better than oat bran. Science News 145(Jan. 8):28.
_____. 1990. Beyond oat bran. Science News 137(May 26):330.
Joyce J. Saltsman
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
Food and Drug Administration
200 C Street, SW
Washington, DC 20204
General Mills, Inc.
1 General Mills Boulevard
Minneapolis, MN 55426
Joanne L. Slavin
Department of Food Science and Nutrition
Colleges of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Science
and College of Human Ecology
166 Food Science And Nutrition
1334 Eckles Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55108
This week's Food for Thought is prepared by Janet Raloff, senior editor of Science News.