The next time you pour yourself a bowl of Cheerios, keep this in mind: General Mills, the manufacturer of Cheerios, thinks the American public is stupid. According to a new lawsuit brought this week by consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), General Mills has been pulling one over on consumers when it comes to its nutritional claims about its new Protein Cheerios product.
“The overall impression of the box is that the cereal has a lot more protein than traditional Cheerios, but when you look at the nutrition label, it’s clear that Protein Cheerios has only a little bit more protein, and a lot more sugar,” said Michael Jacobson, president of CSPI. “We think that’s very deceptive.” 
What is he referring to?
A look at the nutritional information on both cereals, available on General Mills’ website, reveals that a single serving of Cheerios Protein contains 7 grams of protein and 17 grams of sugar. A single serving of regular Cheerios has 3 grams of protein and only 1 gram of sugar.
The difference in protein content isn’t that much to celebrate; the recommended daily intake of protein is 56 grams for men and 46 for women.
“This is a very minimal change when you look at how much protein people eat,” says Jacobson.
The difference in the amount of protein is even more negligible when you consider that the serving size of each of the cereals is quite different. According to General Mills’ nutritional info, a serving of regular Cheerios is 28 grams, but a serving of Cheerios Protein is 55 grams. This also means that, by weight, Cheerios Protein has just over 8 times as much sugar as regular Cheerios, rather than 17.
That’s slightly better, but still nothing to celebrate.
“They really ought to call the product Cheerios Sugar,” Jacobson says.
Of course, it’s difficult for Americans to know just how much added sugar they’re really getting, since organizations like the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Sugar Association, and the Frozen Foods Institute and other sugar interests have consistently eschewed the idea of putting added sugars on food labels, and maintain that sugar doesn’t negatively impact health.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that women consume no more than 5 teaspoons of added sugar daily, and men no more than 9. School-age children should eat no more than 3 teaspoons of sugar per day, and pre-teens and teens should consume no more than 5-8.
It doesn’t take much to reach and exceed recommended sugar limits, particularly if you’re a young person. As Forbes points out, a teenager who eats a 55 gram serving of Cheerios Protein (4 teaspoons of sugar) at breakfast and drinks a 12 ounce soft drink later in the day (9-10 teaspoons of sugar), will have more than maxed out his or her daily limit.
Too few Americans check labels as it is, and General Mills knows that and uses it to their advantage. According to the complaint, the sugar and protein content isn’t the only problem. Consumers who pick Cheerios Protein over the regular variety are duped into paying about 70 cents more for the cereal at stores like Walmart, Giant Foods and Safeway.
Every version of Cheerios that has been released since the original has contained more sugar than the last, but CSPI says that the real problem is that the company doesn’t make good on the core promise of Cheerios Protein’s name, and many consumers are being fooled.
“I think people wouldn’t buy the cereal if they knew how little the difference in protein is,” said Jacobson. “But that fact isn’t obvious.” 
Certainly not, considering the box has “PROTEIN” in huge letters on the front of the box.
Featured image credit and photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg