I was disturbed by a short exchange I had with my ten-year-old daughter today. I told her we would be cooking a cholesterol-free dinner tonight, because one of our guests is trying to lower her cholesterol without medication, to which my dear daughter replied, “She should eat Cheerios.”
Apparently General Mills’ health claims—prominently displayed on every box—have reached my daughter, and she accepts them as fact.
Skimming through the New York Times later in the day, I read an Associated Press article, reporting on a Pricewaterhouse Coopers research paper just released, showing that even in a struggling economy America’s appetite for “functional foods” has not diminished. In fact, this category—accounting for more than $27 billion in sales a year of vitamin-, fiber-, calcium- and omega 3 fatty acids-fortified foods—is growing, and the report estimates a future growth range of from 8.5 to 20 percent per year—far more than the 1 to 4 percent forecast for the food industry as a whole.
The AP article cites nutrition experts who openly criticizing this trend, such as New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle who says: "Functional foods are about marketing, not health. They delude people into thinking that these things are healthy,” while David Schardt, nutritionist for the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest, says: ''It's really a junk food dressed up to look prettier than it is. People are going to be deceived into thinking a lot of these products are especially healthy for them when there's little evidence they are. There's more hype to these products than there is reality.''
The article also warns against simplistic thinking, such as if a nutrient is good for you, then more is better, and that eating the nutrient in isolation, and not contained in the whole food it typically is part of, is just as beneficial. All too often the opposite is true. Indeed, studies have shown that several vitamins—such as vitamin A and E in excess—are actually harmful, and the benefits of eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains are not observed if vitamins and fiber come only from supplements.
Back to Cheerios—is it indeed a wonder drug? The package, website and ads claim that Cheerios can reduce "bad" cholesterol levels by four percent in just six weeks and ward off heart disease and cancers of the colon and stomach. The FDA authorized health claim, which General Mills (producer of Cheerios) is allowed to post (because the cereal is a food that contains whole grain), is: “Eating diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and high in fiber-containing fruit, vegetable, and grain products may reduce the risk of heart disease.” Big difference!
The FDA in fact issued a letter of warning to General Mills in May this year, informing the company the claims on the box make Cheerios 'an Unapproved Drug.'
I think that if a study performed on the stairs of a building proved that climbing up and down for thirty minutes a day lowered cholesterol and improved heart health, the take home message—provided the study was well preformed and backed by other evidence—would be that exercise is beneficial to heart health and lowering cholesterol, and perhaps that we should take the stairs at work. I can hardly see crowds forming at the research building queuing–up to climb the stairs used in the specific study—as if there’s anything unique about them.
But many people are humbled and confused by nutrition science, and it’s easy to leap to erroneous conclusions. The reality is that if a study on a certain berry shows benefits, that doesn’t mean that only this berry has the alleged benefit—perhaps all fruit do—and it certainly doesn’t mean that the micronutrients in that berry in isolation will be beneficial as well. Also, if a certain nutrient shows promise in rodents or a cell culture, it’s certainly exciting for the scientific community, which will further study the issue, but it’s hardly actionable news for consumers.
Many studies show that whole grain is indeed an important component of a healthy diet. Replacing refined grains with whole grains is a very good idea. There are many ways to add whole grains to your diet, and the best way is to add them through whole foods—using whole wheat or whole wheat flour, brown rice, whole oats and quinoa for instance.
If you’re shopping for breakfast cereal, look for the ones that are made with whole grain (and less sugar)—morning cereals are a practical way for many kids to eat a good breakfast. But don’t for a second be confused about which food is better for you: the fruit is better than the fruit drink with a health claim on it, and the corn on the cob you cooked is better that the corn flakes, despite the health claims.
So while moving from sausage, egg and cheese biscuits and triple chocolate muffins to Cheerios is a move in the right direction (and I’ll admit I have Cheerios at home), the health claims and “functionality” of these cereals is very misleading. Indeed, it’s all about marketing, and not about health.
So what’s on my no-cholesterol menu for tonight? Very simple—I’ll be cooking a vegan meal. No animal products—no cholesterol. I’ll be making some baked tofu, with wild mushroom and garlic whole-wheat pasta (with grated parmesan cheese on the side), an herbed fennel and zucchini gratin, a big green salad and a fruit sorbet for dessert. No cholesterol, lots of fruits veggies, whole grains and fiber.
But I won’t put a health claim on it; that could be confusing.
In case you’re interested in my recipes for whole grain foods here a few links (1, 2)
What do you think about health claims and functional foods?
This entry has been posted as part of The Kathleen Show's Prevention not Prescriptions