What the Cheerios Protein Lawsuit Means for Consumers

Cindy Ma
by Cindy Ma
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What the Cheerios Protein Lawsuit Means for Consumers

Walk into any grocery store, and you’re guaranteed to find food packaging plastered with trendy nutrition claims. As health-conscious consumers with busy lives, we may believe these claims enough to buy a certain food, but to what degree can we trust them?

Only about a third of consumers do believe that food companies are transparent, according to the 2016 market research report “Evolving Trust in the Food Industry,” from Sullivan Higdon & Sink FoodThink. The remaining 65% yearn to learn more about how their food is produced — the good, the bad and the ugly — so that they can decide for themselves. Researchers did find a modest increase in the trust consumers have in their food. Since 2012, food companies and manufacturers have increased their credibility as a source for food production information in the eyes of consumers by 17%. This growth is likely due to the industry’s willingness to be more open and the media’s increased attention on food production. Still, the food industry has a way to go.

Late last year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit advocating for safer, healthier foods, filed a lawsuit against General Mills over their Cheerios Protein. They allege that the claims on boxes of Cheerios Protein could mislead reasonable consumers into thinking that it’s a higher-protein alternative to regular Cheerios. Judge Thelton Henderson of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled on August 10 that this lawsuit, which accuses General Mills of violating the federal Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, may proceed. He did concede that the court was “skeptical.”

Cheerios Protein: Do the Math

Having the word “protein” on the front of the box can make a cereal appear more nutritious at first glance, but do the math and you’ll see the difference in protein between the two products is minimal.

Cheerios Protein contains 7 grams of protein per 1 1/4 cup serving compared with the 3 grams per 1 cup serving of traditional Cheerios. If you ate 2 cups of regular Cheerios, you’d get nearly the same amount of protein, with fewer calories than the 1 1/4 cup serving of the version with added protein.

Surprised? Flip the box over to read the ingredients list, and you’ll see that Cheerios Protein lists 10 forms of sweetener, including corn syrup, refiner’s syrup and brown sugar. In total, Cheerios Protein contains 17 grams of sugar compared with 1 gram in regular Cheerios, though the box does not mention that on the front.

 Original CheeriosCheerios Protein Oats & Honey
Serving Size1 cup1 1/4 cup

Why Transparency Matters

In today’s digital age, transparency is expected. To consumers, transparency means an honest package that does what it claims. If it claims fewer ingredients, it should have fewer ingredients. If it claims to be gluten-free, it should neither have any ingredients containing gluten nor have been processed at a gluten-containing facility. If it has added protein but also contains added sugars, it should disclose that. Consumers want to learn about where their food comes from and what’s in it, for the health of themselves and their families. Packaging with truthful claims help us make smart choices quickly. When packaging lacks transparency, we have to spend a few extra minutes to do the math and go beyond the marketing claims.

The Takeaway

Building a transparent food system won’t happen overnight. Lawsuits like this will gradually lead the food industry toward more transparency and accountability in their marketing and manufacturing practices. For now, health-conscious shoppers should be aware that traditional products are increasingly fortified or labeled with trendy nutrients for an added marketing edge. Stay informed and be proactive by reading the nutrition label and ingredients list.

How do you feel about the Cheerios Protein lawsuit? Share your thoughts and concerns below.

About the Author

Cindy Ma
Cindy Ma

Cindy holds a bachelor’s in nutritional science from UC Berkeley. By sharing her knowledge of nutrition, Cindy aspires to empower others to reach their full potential by living a healthy lifestyle and embracing a positive body image. She enjoys experimenting in the kitchen, exploring cultures through food, and exercising with friends. Connect with her on Twitter.


28 responses to “What the Cheerios Protein Lawsuit Means for Consumers”

  1. Avatar Timothy Fish says:

    While I might have purchased the product thinking that it had more protein than it does, if I were really concerned about how much protein I’m getting per calorie, I would have spotted the issue right away.

  2. Avatar Karen Clifton says:

    I would say that anyone who is genuinely concerned about the calorie/sugar/protein ratio would look at the nutrition label regardless of what the front of the box said.

  3. Avatar RockieAnn1965 says:

    In this day and age it is our responsiblity also, to read the caloric and nutrional info. Lots of packaging on store shelf’s claim to be great for you and are loaded with fat, sugar, sulfates, etc. We need to quit always blaming someone else for the things we are actually putting in our bodies. Read a box…hello? Quit whining and quit filing frivolous law suits when in the long run, we are going to have to foot the bill with higher prices, get over it and read the package.

    • Avatar Dan Cunningham says:

      I somewhat agree. But, on the other hand, the Cheerios brand has been made out to be “healthy” with how many millions of dollars of advertising, over how many years? The name has been repeatedly linked to heart health, cholesterol control, low sodium diets, etc.

      So while we, as consumers, bear a burden to check the label, I think it is entirely acceptable to give Cheerios/General Mills a bit of bad press over what, very broadly speaking, is “false advertising.” Notice I said “very broadly” and quoted “false advertising”: I don’t think lawsuit has a chance of being won.

  4. Avatar DaDisplacedYooper says:

    Nothing here about high protein Cheerios was news to me. I had already done the math and concluded regular Cheerios was a healthier choice. What upsets me about package labeling is the lack of standards on portion size. Protein grams per serving is never an apples to apples comparison. They tried to eliminate the need for math by showing % of recommended daily requirements for a 2000 calorie diet. That doesn’t seem to help either. Bottom line: put some effort into making a good choice and don’t fall victim to flashy packaging.

    • Avatar NotSoBlah says:

      I used to love Quaker 100% Natural Cereal. Then I read the label and realized the recommended serving was just 1/4 cup, and even then it had as much sugar as a candybar.

  5. Avatar Finjan says:

    That’s the main reason that in many countries with the metric system they list nutritional information per 100 grams. It’s much easier to compare products. The serving size information is never accurate anyway, so you have to figure that for yourself. But it’s easy to do fractions (or percents) of 100.

    This is just another example of big corporations manipulating government at the expense of the consumer.

    • Avatar NotSoBlah says:

      Especially for something like cereal, with a lot of airspace, going by weights makes more sense. You can get a lot of broken cornflakes in a cup!

  6. Avatar Jamie London says:

    They should be called Extra-Sugar Cheerios! It’s a good example of why one should avoid food products that make health claims, such as low fat, extra protein etc.

  7. Avatar Chica259 says:

    Thanks for article, Kashi does the same thing and got me! I always bought the original Go Lean Kashi.The flavored Go Lean cereal says 9grams of protein for 3/4 cup but the original Kashi says 12 grams for 1 1/4 cup. Will be more aware of tricky serving size.

  8. Avatar pattidarbishire says:

    Thank goodness this situation was brought to light. I switched out regular Cheerios for the Protein version for a year thinking it was healthier, until my daughter the dietician stepped in and set me straight on all that extra sugar. Everyone needs their own dietician to figure these things out.

  9. Avatar Leelee Summytoo says:

    Feels like a typical processed-food manufacturer’s standard bag of tricks to me. Add something that seems to be “good for you” – protein – but look at how the new version loads up the sugar and especially the sodium! The original Cheerios just taste great to me. Simpler is better. Having fewer ingredients that are all pronounceable seems like the best option to me.

  10. Avatar NotSoBlah says:

    I wonder if the “protein” version is denser. That is, if there are more flakes per cup, there will naturally be more protein, more carbs, more fibre … more cereal per cup.

    I have a digital kitchen scale. I not only read the packages but I weigh food. Hint: your sliced bread has bigger slices than what shows on the label.

  11. Avatar Nanometer says:

    Well you’re comparing between plain Cheerios and Cheerios protein oats and honey. Isn’t it obvious that the Cheerios protein oats and honey would have more calories and sugar, since it has honey compared to the original plain Cheerios.

  12. Avatar Nasser says:

    Well, I agree it may be initially misleading but anyone who is truly conscious about nutrient intake, will always look at the “Nutrition Information” on the back and check for the basic macros Protein Carbs and Fats. So whereas I think Cheerios cheated a little, I don’t think all is lost as yet.
    If companies start lying on the back of the box with their Nutrition Info, then yes the common customer is in big trouble!

  13. Avatar Kim says:

    Cheerios also has a gluten free version that is not produced on a separate line and is “…not recommend for those with celiac disease.” Particularly when dealing with food allergies and medical diets transparency is important. A gluten free lable on a product that clearly does not meet that definition is horrendous!! I am now an even more careful and jaded consumer who avoids not just these products but the brand’s. Cheerios fails.

    • Avatar Chris says:

      I wonder if you have an old box, or if they changed their production facilities recently? The Cheerios in front of me don’t have that disclaimer.

      The Cheerios site has a gluten free section, and in their FAQ on a recent recall, include the following: “Is it safe for consumers who are celiac or gluten intolerant to eat Cheerios or Honey Nut Cheerios produced at Lodi, California, before and after the affected code dates?

      Yes. We have confirmed via testing that the products produced at Lodi both before and after the affected code dates are FDA compliant as gluten free.

      Is it safe for consumers who are celiac or gluten intolerant to eat Cheerios or Honey Nut Cheerios produced at General Mills’ other facilities on these same dates?

      Yes. Our products produced at our other facilities are not involved. The Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios produced at our other facilities are FDA compliant and gluten free.”

  14. Avatar Leslie M. says:

    I don’t have to read any labels I don’t buy anything man-made

    • Avatar mrspinky85 says:

      Just because something is man made doesn’t make it bad. Good thing you live in an area where you can make such choices. Some people cannot.

    • Avatar RJ says:

      And that snotty attitude is why lot of people despise the whole foods movements; the stench of classism is strong.

      • Avatar Leslie M. says:

        JUST because I say I don’t have to read labels does NOT mean Im being snotty…GEEZE who the F*** are YOU to say I’m being snotty when you don’t even KNOW ME or who I am…who really is the asshole here..I’m JUST stating a FACT…I don’t have to read labels !!!!!!

  15. Avatar Heather says:

    If it is in a box or can healthy is debatable. If you want healthy go for fruit and veggies

  16. Avatar Tim Yogerst says:

    First of all it makes no claims about the protein to carb ratio, which some people might assume despite the number of calories per serving in plain sight. Secondly, the presence of protein has little significance in terms of what’s healthy for you. For example, a high-protein snack might be fatal for an individual with a peanut allergy. Do people that need more protein really consider breakfast cereal as a good source? Not really. This is more a failure of the school system to educate than a company trying to deceive consumers!

  17. Avatar sherlc29 says:

    Food companies mislead ALL the time; they have an option to identify GMO ingredients and choose not to. I read the nutrition labels and do the math. Food companies already round down on calorie counts. I only hope that the nutrition label is correct and that my organic food is actually organic.

  18. Avatar keygirlus says:

    I can do math, and read labels, so not really an issue for me, but I know many people can’t for a variety of reasons, including the micro font common to nutrition information. Consumers really should be checking nutrition numbers, but according to the comments I have received from grocers, it isn’t all that common, unsurprising in our hectic lives. If the suit leads to more transparent labeling, great. If it ends in monetary compensation, boo. It will never be enough to make it unprofitable to mislead consumers. 99 of a 100 labels I read are in some way obfuscated, so a change in labeling regulations is the only way to have a meaningful change in the availability of real choice.

  19. Avatar carolina giannini says:

    The same thing happens with reduced fat food. You can see in the front of the label reduced fat in big letters but if you read the nutritional info they also have a higher level of added sugars, so yes you are eating less fat but so much more added sugar!

  20. Avatar Christy Rodgers says:

    Read the box label. We Will pay for what this lawsuit costs and cheerios is not the worst thing for you in the world.

  21. Avatar Stephen Mason says:

    Anything made with flour, whether whole grain or not, tends to spike my blood sugar followed by a sugar crash. I’ve found cold cereals are the worst in this regard because of the added sugar they usually have. I have switched to oat groats because of the slower release of carbs which I find more sustaining. My personal experience is just because it has “oats” on the label does not automatically mean it is good for me. I have changed my definition of “whole grain” to mean the whole unbroken grain. The slower metabolism of the whole unbroken grain has been supported by scientific studies of the matter. I still eat bread but I try to minimize my consumption of it.

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