The U.S. Food and Drug Administration opened the way last week for whole grain products to carry a new health claim that touts their potential to help reduce the risk of heart disease and some types of cancer.

Filed by General Mills, the new claim is the 11th allowed by the FDA and the first to promote a food's effect on two diseases. Under the new claim, foods that contain 51 percent or more of whole grain ingredients by weight may say on their labels that "diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods and low in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers."

Among the products slated to carry the new health claims beginning in August are Cheerios, Wheaties and Total cereals. In reviewing the new claims on these foods, the FDA did not give the scientific research on whole grain foods the scrutiny that goes into the approval of a new drug, but accepted results from a review of the literature conducted in 1989 by the National Academy of Sciences.

Consumer advocates praised the new health claims, saying that it will help Americans better identify which foods contain whole grains. "This is a good idea," said Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer group. "For years, we have been trying to get people to switch to whole grains and we have not made that much progress. This may make a difference."

Current dietary guidelines recommend that consumers eat six to 11 servings of grain products daily, including at least three whole grain foods. A draft of health goals published by the Department of Health and Human Services, calls for 75 percent of Americans to meet this intake by the year 2010.

Later this month, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the National Institutes of Health and the American Society for Clinical Nutrition are scheduled to release a new unified set of dietary guidelines that also recommend increasing consumption of whole grain foods to at least three servings per day.

Most American fall short of those goals. Only 7 percent of Americans eat three or more whole grain foods daily, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture consumption figures. "Increasing whole grain consumption could have a profound impact on the health of the nation," said former HHS secretary Louis Sullivan, now president of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

Until now, however, knowing which products contain high amounts of whole grain has been difficult. The new health claim is expected to help consumers make sense of the huge array of products that boast whole grain ingredients but may contain only small amounts of these foods. Caramel coloring, for example, is sometimes used to give products the hearty look of whole grain products without including whole grains.

"Many people pick up a loaf of bread that says multigrain or rye or pumpernickel, thinking that they are getting whole grains and they are not," Liebman said. "What they are getting is white flour with a sprinkle of multigrains."

Studies suggest that a diet high in whole grains helps reduce the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer. At the University of Minnesota, epidemiologist David R. Jacobs has found that those who ate whole grain products daily had about a 15 to 25 percent reduction in death from all causes, including heart disease and cancer.

Whole grain foods contain higher amounts of fiber. But research suggests that "it's the whole food--the whole grain-- [that] delivers abundant amounts of antioxidant vitamins and phytochemicals that appear to act together to provide protective effects," Jacobs said.