Call me old fashioned, but I enjoyed the days when the heavyweight champion of the wrestling world would scream at my favorite cereal mascots and then treat me to a posing display with his hormonally enhanced physique.
Back then, I was far less concerned about the potential benefits the cereal might hold for me, nor did my mother seem to care outside of the fact that a product like Cheerios was characterized as being part of a nutritious breakfast. But the passage of time has necessitated that I pay much closer attention to the promises made by cereal manufacturers, as it isn’t sufficient to simply say that a product is “nutritious” — a claim must be quantified, tested and stated in relation to a specific set of criteria for establishing what health entails.
In that respect, Cheerios has taken the lead with its assurance of being “the only leading cold cereal proven to lower cholesterol,” with some of the commercials trumpeting this proclamation being among the most adorable in advertising history.
Cute marketing campaigns aside, is Cheerios actually proven to lower cholesterol, and just as importantly, how legit is this claim?
How was it proven that Cheerios lowers cholesterol in the first place?
The study in question — funded by General Mills — was conducted by the University of Minnesota Heart Disease Prevention Clinic, and was published in the January/February 1998 issue of Tufts University’s Nutrition in Clinical Care. The study compared the effects of eating a whole grain oat cereal — namely Cheerios — on high-cholesterol study participants between the ages of 40 and 70 in comparison with a control group composed of the same adult population that was fed commercial corn flakes.
At the conclusion of the study, it was determined that the group that consumed Cheerios lowered its average total cholesterol level by 3.8 percent, and its average LDL cholesterol level by 4.5 percent in comparison to the control group. The discussion section of the study noted, “The lipid-lowering effect of this ready-to-eat cereal is similar to studies using hot oatmeal and oat bran, as well as a previous study evaluating the effect of a whole grain oat ready-to-eat cereal.”
In other words, there’s nothing within the study that suggests that the effects of Cheerios on cholesterol were unique to Cheerios. Rather, the study confirmed that a cold oat cereal could demonstrate the same cholesterol-lowering properties as oatmeal, or any oat cereals that are usually consumed while hot.
So Cheerios do lower cholesterol?
Yes, but their capabilities are driven solely by their oat content. And if we’re going to ride that pathway straight to its logical conclusion, folks who regularly consume Lucky Charms or any other oat-based breakfast cereal should expect similar outcomes, at least with respect to cholesterol levels.
What is it exactly that the oats are doing in my body to lower cholesterol?
When the results of the study were first released, the researchers weren’t exactly sure, but subsequent studies have attributed at least the bulk of the cholesterol-lowering attributes of oats to β-glucan, a soluble dietary fiber that’s found in the endosperm cell walls of oats. β-glucan has been demonstrated to reduce total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol by creating a viscous mass in the small intestine that limits intestinal absorption of dietary cholesterol, and also inhibits the reabsorption of bile acids.
Still, perspective is important here. If you find yourself suffering from high cholesterol, adding oats to your diet is an ideal first step, but if you believe the dietary advice of the Mayo Clinic, you should also reduce saturated fats, eliminate trans fats, consume foods with omega-3 fatty acids, increase the overall quantity of soluble fiber in your diet and also ingest more whey protein. Of course, that’s before you get into their non-dietary advice, including that you should exercise daily, lose weight if you’re in an unhealthy weight class, stop smoking and drink alcohol only in moderation.
After all, if you have dangerously high cholesterol, you probably don’t want to wager your life that Cheerios are going to be the panacea that solves all of your problems any more than Stanley from The Office is going to trust the word of a honey bee that a heart-shaped honey-oat cereal is the best nutritional step toward improving his life.