Just ask Craig . . .

He's the guy I have breakfast with in the morning. He's about 50 with blond hair and a nice smile. His hobbies include skiing, mountain biking, camping and hiking. He says his greatest accomplishment is "Raising my three boys with my wife," and he lives in Colorado.

Craig Demmon is the poster boy on the back of Quaker's Roasted Oatmeal Squares. Many a morning I reach for the box and look at Craig in a blue shirt as I mix my cereal with yogurt. "I feel young and energetic," says Craig on the box.

Who is Craig Demmon?

He and his wife, Elaine, and their three sons live just outside of Lafayette. At the time, Craig was working in the advertising department of the local newspaper when he heard about the "Smart Heart Challenge"--an advertising campaign for Quaker Oats. His wife, a nurse, thought it would be a good idea, so they joined a group of 100 people in Lafayette who volunteered to eat oatmeal every day for the month of January 1998. They were given free supplies of oatmeal, recipes, a red fleece jacket and pep talks about exercise and a healthy diet. They had their blood drawn before and after. Craig's total cholesterol levels dropped more than 20 points.

"After 30 days, 98 out of 100 lowered their cholesterol," states the box of Oatmeal Squares in bold lettering. "Lafayette, Colorado Confirms . . . Oatmeal May Help Lower Cholesterol," concludes the box. "Just ask Craig . . . "

This is not The New England Journal of Medicine. This is a box of cereal. There is nothing scientific about 100 people in Colorado eating oatmeal for a month, despite the pseudo-scientific language on the box. The group of volunteers was self-selected; there was no control group of people matched in age and health status who did not follow the oatmeal program.

But the Lafayette "experiment" is great advertising. As officials with Quaker Oats explain, it is a way to make the proven benefits of eating oatmeal come alive with real people in a real town.

"It wasn't our intention to publish this in a medical journal," says Steven Ink, nutrition director for Quaker Oats. "What makes it powerful is that it is in synch with the science."

For consumers, it's sometimes hard to distinguish between solid research and promotional hype. In this new age of "functional" and "designer" foods, certain products can boast of medicinal powers. But which foods are just plain tasty and nutritious and which ones are so healtful that they may lower your risk of disease?

Since 1997 Quaker Oats has had approval from the Food and Drug Administration to make the claim that their cereals containing oats, "as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease." That official wording is on the box with Craig Demmon's testimonial.

The health claim for Quaker Oats is based on the FDA's review of more than 35 published studies on the link between consumption of oat bran or oatmeal and the risk of heart disease. At least five showed a significant relationship between eating oats and lowering total cholesterol levels as well as the "bad" LDL cholesterol without any adverse effects on "good" cholesterol. Another 12 studies lent support to the claim.

Since high cholesterol levels are a risk factor for heart disease, lowering these levels may reduce your risk of heart disease.

But FDA officials don't want people to think that a bowl of oatmeal a day will automatically keep the doctor away. To begin with, you have to eat three servings a day for it to have an effect, according to the research. That's a lot of oatmeal. What's more, getting your fiber from oats has to be part of a larger healthy lifestyle that includes a daily regimen low in dietary fat and high in physical activity. Finally, the key word in the health claim is conditional: Eating oatmeal may reduce your individual risk. Or it may not. Heart disease is too complex and variable to be conquered by a single toasted oatmeal square.

That doesn't take away from Craig's testimonial on the cereal box. He is a healthy, active guy. He still likes oatmeal--but perhaps not every day. "I'm not a loyal oatmeal eater, but I do it," he says. "I do eat the squares." He had a physical exam about 8 months ago and his cholesterol levels were back up to where they were before. "It was not alarming." He and his wife still take their three sons skiing at Copper Mountain; they camp out for a couple of weeks in a cabin in Wyoming. The only thing that's changed is his job; he's now the advertising representative for an industrial buying guide on the Web.

All in all, Craig was glad to be an advertising guinea pig and join the ranks of cereal celebrities. He got paid an honorarium of $250 for appearing on the box of oatmeal squares. He's heard from friends he hadn't talked to in a long time. And when his mom goes to the supermarket, she turns the box of Oatmeal Squares around so he's sitting next to Tiger Woods on the Wheaties box.