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Why is Dr. Travis Stork pushing ‘whole-grain’ sugary cereals?

General Mills

Dr. Travis Stork, TV talk-show host of The Doctors, wants everyone to know that he’s “passionate about choosing products with whole grain as the first ingredient,” according to a press release sent to me by General Mills. Immediately, my alarm bells started ringing, since I’m all too familiar with their whole-grain-rich sugar cereals like Cinnamon Toast Crunch, one of my son’s favorites.

In a phone interview, Stork acknowledged that he was being paid by General Mills to promote whole grains but emphasized that this didn’t mean he was “endorsing General Mills” or telling parents to buy the company’s Lucky Charms, Trix, or Cookie Crisp -- even if they do have whole grain as the first ingredient.

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“I’m a spokesperson for whole grains,” said the emergency room physician who became famous after appearing on the reality show The Bachelor. “But I also think we should reward companies that increase the nutritional profiles of their products.”

One glance at the nutrition facts label of Trix, however, tells me that General Mills hasn’t done much to improve the cereal. While whole grain corn is the first ingredient, sugar is the second, processed corn meal is the third, and corn syrup (another sweetener) comes fourth. The product contains 10 grams of sugar -- down from 13 grams last year -- and just one gram of fiber.

“What whole grains do is that they give you more fiber, which makes you feel full longer and also slows the absorption of sugar,” said Stork.

When I pointed out that the General Mills’ sugary kid cereals labeled whole grain had just one or two grams of fiber, he responded, “You’re raising a valid point, which is why I tell people to read the nutrition label.”

Ah, so we need to look beyond the giant whole grain banner emblazoned on the front of the cereal box? I’m guessing that’s something many harried parents heading to the supermarket after work aren’t apt to do. They may just assume that whole grains equals nutritious, which clearly isn’t always the case.

Yet General Mills hasn’t broken any labeling rules set by the US Food and Drug Administration. The agency recommends eating three one-ounce servings of whole grains a day, which includes ready-to-eat cereals that have whole wheat, oats, whole-grain cornmeal, brown rice, whole-grain barley, whole rye, and buckwheat listed first on their label.

Thus, Lucky Charms with its whole grain oats as the first ingredient -- followed by marshmallows and sugar -- qualifies as a serving of whole grains along with whole wheat bread and pasta and General Mills Cheerios, with its one gram of sugar per serving.

Stork said, as a physician, he “can’t tell parents what to buy for their kids,” and he should know, he added, since he grew up in Tennessee, where obesity is rampant, presumably due to a high intake of junk foods. His point? People tweak their eating habits gradually, and small steps towards more nutrients are better than none.

“Part of this [campaign] is educating people, to get them to understand what whole grains are and to realize that they have choice when it comes to cereals,” Stork said.

Sensible advice, but I’m still wondering why Stork chose to put himself behind a brand of sugary cereals marketed to kids -- whole-grain or not.

Related news: Food industry offers to police ads aimed at kids

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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