Cheerios Caught in Labeling Slight of Hand

November 17, 2015 in Foodland, Health, Nutrition, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

I want to start today’s article with an example of why we need to pay attention to how much sugar is in our food – especially our processed food. On November 10, 2015 ABC News reported on a class action lawsuit against General Mills. The lawsuit has to do with the fact that General Mills has come out with yet another version of its very successful brand Cheerios – Cheerios Protein. General Mills markets it as a “high protein, healthful alternative to Cheerios.” Unfortunately the new “Protein” product only has .7 grams protein more than the original Cheerios. Just to help see the significance of a .7 grams difference – one large egg has 6 grams of protein; a half-cup of beans has about 8 grams and a serving of Cheerios has about 6 grams. So making a huge marketing deal out of .7 grams seems a little crazy. Much worse is the fact that Cheerios Protein has about 17 times the amount of added sugar, as compared with the original Cheerios. As we said in the past, what’s on the face of the package or box is ….. well, highly misleading about protein, and says nothing about the huge added sugar load. “Healthful”? Come On! As the lawsuit states: “Rather than protein, the principal ingredient that distinguishes Cheerios Protein from original Cheerios is sugar.”

Cheerios used to be one of the low added sugar cereals that a consumer could always depend upon. Unfortunately, for the consumer, unless they glanced at the nutrition label, they would not have noticed that virtually all of the secondary Cheerio products are loaded with added sugar. If you’re comparing the protein and sugar between the original Cheerios and Cheerios Protein, be sure to notice that General Mills drastically increased the serving size; 27 grams for the original Cheerios, to 55 grams for the Protein Cheerios. So of course, at a glance the protein looks significantly higher. But alas, not really. This is cynical labeling slight of hand, relying on the assumption the consumer is too ignorant to figure out such a superficial dodge for such a major deceit.

Another interesting fact about the Cheerios Protein product is that they charge more for the product. I assume that their marketing masters know that the public is willing to pay more for protein (.7 grams) than for sugar. Regrettably, the consumer is really paying more for cheap sugar. The consumer pays more, in both money and decreased health; General Mills has a higher profit margin by replacing whole grain oats with sugar.

The above is just an example of how the American public is being duped into eating more and more empty calorie sugar, which damages health. Finally the Food and Drug Administration is recommending a daily cap on sugar. We’ve had the official guidance from The American Heart Association (AHA) for over five years – to strive to keep sugar intake to under 100 calories per day for women and under 150 for men. Now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is finally recommending a daily cap on sugar. Their published goal for children between the ages of 1 to 3 is to keep added sugars below 85 calories/ 25 grams a day. I’m impressed that the FDA was at long last able to take the big step toward a goal to cap sugar; in spite of the huge and powerful sugar lobby, and the compelling attraction by food processors, who get higher profit margins and more sugar-craving customers.

Their recommendation is to limit added sugar to no more than 10 percent of daily calories. So if you’re average (very wide range included in average) that is about 2,000 calories for women and 2,500 for men. Of course, your intake varies by age and activity and individual metabolic rate; but for the sake of this article, let’s just use these averages. What the FDA ultimately decided is just about double the AHA’s goals. The FDA might have been thinking that keeping it under 200 – 250 would be hard enough. Therefore, they offer for both men and women an extra 100 calories per day than the Heart Associated advised, from sugar. Or they may hope they could keep the lobbyists at bay with their more generous goal. By choosing a percentage goal, they essentially design for a possible misunderstanding for the overweight, obese and morbidly obese. So if a woman needs about 18 calories per pound of body weight to maintain that weight, and weighed 250 pounds, she would be eating somewhere in the 4500 calories if she is active. That would mean that she would have a goal of keeping her sugar intake to 450 calories per day. That’s a hefty load of sugar and empty calories. Ten percent of intake based upon body weight should not be the goal for the overweight or obese, but less than that.

It’s really interesting to read Rabin’s description of how the FDA’s goals were derived. This description is from The New York Times’ writer, Roni Caryn Rabin, on November 9, 2015. In essence, different healthy diet patterns were modeled and then they determined how many discretionary calories are left over for sugar after an individual gets the nutrients he or she needs. The baseline is that there’s a very small allowance for discretionary calories, or what some people call ‘empty calories.

Dr. Susan Krebs-Smith, the chief of the risk factors assessment branch at the National Cancer Institute came up with a great example. She said; “If we were advising the public on how to spend their money, we wouldn’t have trouble telling them to focus on spending on essentials like food, shelter and clothing.” Food should not be overstocked with empty calories just because it increases profits and enhances craving.

Of course, if you’re still drinking sugar sweetened drinks that would be a good place to start cutting back. One can of cola has between 33 and 39 grams of sugar, which equates to about 150 calories. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then take a quick glance at Sugar Stacks, which helps the consumer realize how many little sugar cubes are in various drinks of various sizes. I can remember as a child, seeing my mother and father adding a cube of sugar to their cup of coffee. But having 10-plus such cubes in today’s single 12-ounce soda is a significant change. Breakfast cereals with too much added sugar are also a prime target for reducing excess sugar. Many people use dry cereal as a substitute for meal planning and preparation, or even when time is too short to go to a fast food drive-though.

If you’re thinking of giving up all but one can of sugary soda a day, you better be prepared also to look into the processed foods that you intend to eat. There is so much added sugar in foods that you would never suspect. Returning to Rabin’s New York Times article cited earlier: “...for most people, giving up sugary soft drinks will not be enough to meet the recommendations.” My favorite part of Rabin’s article is where she says: “Critics from the food industry have balked” (big surprise here) “at the sugar cap and the new label requirements, saying that new labels will only confuse shoppers.” I say, beware of food industry wolves in sheep’s clothing! This is another example of how those who are so brilliantly expert at confusing the issue by their manipulations of serving sizes and different names for different types of sugar on a label function. Because of this expertise, they feel qualified to speak on what is confusing. Beware, since their real practice is to sow misunderstanding, especially about the amount of sugar in a processed product.

The poor defenseless food industry cites a study published by the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) in June. The study found that people overestimated the amount of sugar in products that listed “added sugars,” and were less likely to buy them. I say Yipee!!! Instead of greatly underestimating sugar as intended by tricky promotions and labels, they overestimate it a bit and don’t buy the product. Score one for public health! We don’t need so much added sugar. The public is proving itself better informed, not as ignorant as General Mills, for example, might be counting on.

A little bit of information about the AND’s study above makes us continue to question some of the AND’s positions. Seriously AND, if you want us to listen up to your studies don’t include an author who is the director of nutrients communications for the International Food Information Council, which receives funding from food and beverage companies including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Dump Kris Sollid and any others who work for organizations, which take money from the sugar giants. They say it’s more important to watch total calories, instead of calories from sugar.

Yes, total calories are important, but let’s not forget that added sugars are utterly lacking in nutrients. The World Health Organization also endorses a 10 percent cap on sugars; but makes a distinction to exclude those in fresh fruits, vegetables and milk. They also urge people to aim even lower, limiting sugars to 5 percent of caloric intake to derive even greater health benefits.

As health professionals, we are no longer keeping our focus on sugar as related only to the weight management issue; chronic diseases have been tied to excess sugar in the diet, including: insulin resistance, hypertension, cardiovascular disease deaths, and diseases caused by inflammation.

Remember to look at more than your drinks; if you’ve decided to try to get your added sugar under control (although nearly half of the added sugar consumed in the United States comes from sweetened drinks). Look at your yogurt; the condiments you use including barbecue sauce; tomato-based pasta sauces; fat-free salad dressings; smoothies; multi-grain and whole grain cereals; crackers and breads. Don’t forget your long-term breakfast safe cereal Cheerios – you may have with good intentions switched to Cheerios Protein. Send a strong message to General Mills. We see through your deceit! Switch back to original Cheerios, or send an even stronger message: Go to a manufacturer who has a better regard for honest labeling, and offers tasty whole grain goodness with little if any added sugar.