The Great Breakfast Cereal Scare
Lucky Charms exonerated—blame it on the nocebo effect.
Posted December 12, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Despite thousands of reports of Lucky Charms sickening consumers over the past year, an investigation has found nothing unusual.
- The most likely culprit for the recent health scare over Lucky Charms is the nocebo effect and the power of negative expectation.
- This was not the first time that rumors of food contamination have led to similar outbreaks of mass psychogenic illness.
One of America’s most popular breakfast cereals has been found safe to eat by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after a year of health complaints. The guilty party appears to be the nocebo effect whereby negative thoughts can produce an array of symptoms without any underlying organic cause. Most people are familiar with its cousin—the placebo effect—where positive expectations can result in people feeling better.
Web Site for Suspected Food Poisoning Reports
In 2009, the Web site "Iwaspoisoned.com" appeared online. The site was created for people who enjoyed eating out but suspected they may have been the victims of food poisoning. Since then, it has logged more than 89,000 submissions and is routinely monitored by public health departments and the food industry to identify new illness outbreaks in their early stages.
Enter, stage right, Lucky Charms cereal, which first appeared on supermarket shelves in 1964. The cereal was a hit with American kids as it contains an array of colorful oat pieces in the shape of clovers, stars, and hearts along with yellow marshmallow crescent moons. For the past 58 years, it has been one of General Mills' most popular cereals. Then, in late 2021, something alarming happened: Someone posted to the "Iampoisoned" Web site that they had fallen ill after eating the cereal. Before long, there were hundreds of reports flooding into the site. To date, the site has now logged more than 7,300 "poisonings" linked to Lucky Charms. The most common symptoms are gastrointestinal issues such as nausea, stomach pain, and diarrhea.
One person posted: “I honestly thought I would die…It robbed me of a week of my life and my love for cereal as we have not had any since.” Another said that the nausea she experienced after eating the cereal was worse than when she was pregnant. Another attributed the illness of her child to the product: “My 4 year old ate lucky charms this morning. I had to work my sister babysat...She called me and said he puked about 4 times....[H]e vomit about 10 o’clock tonight and it smelt just like lucky charms and mind you he ate those at 8 o’clock this morning. He will not eat the cereal ever again.”
After the concerns over the safety of the cereal broke, the headlines were daunting. One media outlet carried the headline, “Thousands Report Vomiting, Diarrhea After Eating Lucky Charms Cereal.” Another stated: “FDA Investigating Lucky Charms After Reports of Illness.”
In September, the FDA ended a four-month investigation into the safety of the cereal and gave it a clean bill of health. It could not identify any pathogen “despite extensive testing for numerous potential microbial and chemical adulterants.” General Mills conducted their own probe and reached a similar conclusion.
So, what is going on here? There are two likely explanations.
First, it would appear that some people are getting sick, and it just so happens that they had recently eaten Lucky Charms, so, given the flurry of attention on the safety of the cereal, it received the blame. After all, there are tens of thousands of boxes of Lucky Charms in cupboards and pantries across the country at any one time, and gastrointestinal complaints are common. Then there is the nocebo effect whereby people believe that something they have been exposed to can make them ill, and they can exhibit symptoms that reflect the event scenario.
The Lucky Charms cereal saga appears to be a form of mass psychogenic illness. It would not be the first time that rumors of food contamination have led to similar outbreaks. During the summer of 1999, rumors spread across Belgium and France of contaminated Coca-Cola products as nearly a thousand people reported an array of health complaints after consuming them. However, a study by toxicologists of the contents of the suspect containers, and the containers themselves, gave the products a clean bill of health, leading scientists to conclude that the symptoms were psychogenic in origin.
“The History of Lucky Charms.” The General Mills Homepage. March 17, 2014, accessed at: https://www.generalmills.com/news/stories/the-history-of-lucky-charms#:….
Casey, Chris (2022). FDA Closes Investigation into Reported Illnesses from Lucky Charms. Food Dive, September 12.
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U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2022). Investigations of Foodborne Illness Outbreaks (closed investigations). Accessed at: https://www.fda.gov/food/outbreaks-foodborne-illness/investigations-foo…