New boxes of reformulated Total, the popular cereal made by General Mills, note that a single serving now contains 100% of the Daily Value, or DV, for calcium. Question is, is that enough calcium for you? And how much calcium does it contain anyway?
Part of the problem is that federal regulations require food companies to display outdated nutritional information rather than the latest dietary allowances for calcium by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences. And the regulations don't require food companies to list the total amount of calcium, creating a recipe for confusion.
Making matters worse, General Mills declines to voluntarily disclose the amount of calcium a serving of the cereal contains. This creates a puzzling situation in which the box prominently promises that the cereal delivers 100% of the daily calcium needed--but never says how much calcium that is.
Here's what you need to know: The new Total contains 100% of the DV for calcium--1,000 milligrams of calcium per 3/4-cup serving, 75% more than was provided by the old formula. (Total also provides 100% of the DV for 11 other vitamins and minerals.)
To most consumers, DV is synonymous with the Recommended Dietary Allowance, the official measure of what the typical person needs each day to stay healthy. But DVs, which are set by the Food and Drug Administration, are calculated based on RDAs set in 1968, even though the nutrition board has updated the recommendations several times since. So when a label says a product meets 100% of the DV for a nutrient, it means 100% of the DV set 32 years ago. (The FDA is waiting for completion of scientific reviews before updating its guidelines.)
Here's how that makes a difference for calcium: The 1968 DV was set at 1,000 milligrams a day for adults. And Total delivers that. But that's 200 milligrams less than the nutrition board now recommends for adults 51 and older and 300 milligrams less than is now suggested for teens. Calcium in the new Total also falls short of the 1,500 milligrams a day the National Institutes of Health has concluded may be best for some post-menopausal women.
For most people, eating a serving of cereal means adding milk, which will boost calcium content. Adding milk puts many people at 110% of the Recommended Daily Allowance for calcium--but that's still below the levels now suggested for older adults or teens.
"The FDA labeling regulation requires us to use 1968 guidelines, and we respect the authority of the U.S. FDA to set guidelines on important health and nutrition matters," said Tom Johnson, a spokesman for General Mills. "We think Total is very well labeled."
The box warns that daily intakes of more than 2,000 milligrams are not likely to provide additional benefit. But it fails to provide a warning about exceeding the upper limits for calcium. The National Academy of Sciences recommends that consumers not exceed 2,500 milligrams of calcium daily--the amount in 2 1/2 bowls of Total. The company says that the risk of consuming unsafe levels of calcium is negligible.
"Total customers are generally 35-plus men and women," said Johnson. "We worked with Dr. [Robert] Heaney, [a calcium expert at Creighton University in Omaha,] and other consultants to help us establish what is the proper limit for calcium and what would be most beneficial for our group of 35-plus men and women. . . ."