A lawsuit has been filed alleging false advertising and misleading labeling against General Mills for its Cheerios Protein cereal. Brought by the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the lawsuit alleges that the cereal has only "negligibly" more protein than regular Cheerios and a lot more sugar—like, a lot.
Here's the thing. Cheerios Protein has seven grams of protein per serving, which bounces it up into the realm of foods that are deemed a "good source of high-quality protein." But the lawsuit says that seven grams of protein is not that much more than the three grams of protein found in regular ol' Cheerios. Also, the plaintiffs say, the serving size of the protein-enhanced serial is larger: 55 grams as opposed to 28 grams. What's up with that? Finally, they want to point out that Cheerios Protein has, per serving, a whopping 17 grams of sugar, while the classic has just one gram. Ergo, the CSPI says: false and misleading advertising.
In an online statement, CSPI Litigation Director Maia Kats said, "Consumers who buy Cheerios Protein probably think they're doing themselves a favor, and that this more expensive product is essentially a protein-fortified version of original Cheerios. In fact, the main thing that distinguishes Cheerios Protein from original Cheerios is the huge amount of sugar and extra calories."
We reached to to the Cheerios people—a.k.a. General Mills— and they obviously have a very different take on the matter. They told us that although they "don't normally respond to these publicity-seeking lawsuits from CSPI," they will make an exception in this case.
General Mills seems to feel that the issue boils down to the federal regulations that determine both serving size and what constitutes a "good source of protein." Bottom line, according to them, is this: "an equal amount of Cheerios Protein contains 18 percent more protein by weight than original Cheerios."
Why does this matter? Well, to make the claim that a cereal is a good source of protein, a manufacturer is required to determine the so-called "percent Daily Value for protein" of its cereal. This calculation is based "on the 'corrected' amount of protein per serving" and goes hand-in-hand with the labeling of serving sizes—also regulated by the FDA.
General Mills told us that a multi-step process of making the protein determination begins with measuring one cup of cereal and weighing it. And, because "Cheerios Protein Oats & Honey is more dense" than regular Cheerios, the company to use a serving size of 55 grams—it was required by law to do so. So, in General Mills' words, "companies do not select serving sizes—and the process is very prescriptive." Thus, they say, the allegation that they are jiggering around with serving sizes is erroneous and that the cereal qualifies under federal regs as a good source of protein with its seven grams.
In their email to us, however, General Mills did not address why there is so much more sugar in Cheerios Protein than there was in good ol' Cheerios. If General Mills can prove their protein claim, will the sugar issue be enough to sustain the lawsuit? Who knows.
General Mills and the Center for Science in the Public Interest will be battling this all out in federal court in California. One lucky jury will be hearing lots of details about serving sizes, protein amounts, and sugar content. Will we all be more enlightened then? Who knows.
Pro tip: just make some Damn Good Ribs if you want protein and stick to the old fashioned Cheerios for some low-sugar, carb-loving fun.