General Mills Inc. won Food and Drug Administration approval to claim that its whole-grain products can combat both heart disease and cancer, a potential boon for the cereal, snack and bread industries.
As a result of the FDA's endorsement, any product that contains at least 51% whole-grain ingredients can advertise its ability to lower the risk of heart disease and some cancers--the top two causes of death in the U.S.
Whole grain includes the outer, fiber-rich bran layer, the endosperm middle layer and the nutrient-packed inner-germ layer of the grain.
General Mills made the request because it produces the largest volume of whole-grain cereals, including Cheerios, Wheaties and Total. The Minneapolis-based company said its cereals will feature the new health claims starting in August and that the new labels will help Americans identify the more healthy whole-grain foods.
"The primary beneficiary now is the cereal industry," although some crackers and breads also contain enough whole grains to make the health claims, said Joanne Slavin, a researcher at the University of Minnesota's department of food science. "I really think this will give companies the incentive to produce more whole-grain products."
While Americans are advised to eat as many as 11 grain products a day, including three whole-grain products, just 7% do.
If consumers ate at least one whole-grain food a day, deaths from cancer and heart disease would drop 8%--saving 120,000 lives a year, said David Jacobs, another researcher at the University of Minnesota.
Studies show that whole grains specifically can reduce the risk of developing colon, rectal, gastric, endometrial, oral, pharyngeal, tongue and esophageal cancers.
General Mills' Big G cereal division posted sales of $2.47 billion in fiscal 1999, due in part to strong performances by cereals with clear health messages, the company said.