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Sugary cereal health claims target of new lawsuit

Consumers are increasingly veering away from the many boxes of processed ingredients, packed with sugar. But that doesn't necessarily mean we're making healthier breakfast choices.

American group argues healthful marketing claims are misleading

According to a recent lawsuit, the regular variety of Cheerios has almost the same amount of protein as the more expensive Cheerios Protein. (Danny Johnston/Associated Press)

It still gets its own aisle in your local grocery store, but breakfast cereal isn't the hot commodity it used to be.

As CBC reported last year, consumers are increasingly veering away from the many boxes of processed ingredients, packed with sugar. But that doesn't necessarily mean we're making healthier breakfast choices.

As consumers become more conscious about the nutritional value of their breakfast choices — and particularly the sugar content of cereals — some marketers have turned to promoting healthier ingredients in their packaging.

It may not be enough to halt the slide in the popularity of breakfast cereals. Kellogg's profits have trended downward for years, and the company closed its Canadian plant in London, Ont. late last year.

Health-conscious consumers are increasingly turning away from sugary breakfast cereals. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

General Mills has reported similar results. And that doesn't surprise Yoni Freedhoff. 

He's the founder of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa, and author of The Diet Fix. Freedhoff says more information and several documentaries have made consumers wary of the dangers of sugar.

But he said cereal companies are getting more creative in their marketing.

"What we're seeing happen is a shift from the classic sugary cereals and their advertisements, on the basis of the fact that maybe they've got a little bit of vitamin D and whole grains in them," he said. "So we're seeing companies like, for instance, Cheerios, creating new products that tout protein content."

Cheerios Protein, a variety of the cereal marketed as being healthier, is the focus of a recently-launched lawsuit. The American-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, filed a class action lawsuit against General Mills for misleading consumers.

It's based, in part, on the fact that Cheerios Protein contains far more sugar than original Cheerios.

The Protein variety has 17 grams of sugar per 55 gram serving, as opposed to two grams of sugar for a similar serving size of regular Cheerios.

The CSPI suit also points out that when serving sizes are matched, Cheerios Protein contains about the same amount of protein as regular Cheerios.

Freedhoff says the lawsuit addresses an important issue, but isn't ultimately going to help the bigger problem.

Yoni Freedhoff argues placing the onus on consumers to research health claims is unrealistic. (Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press)

"We allow the food industry to get away with a lot on the fronts of packages," he said. "I think what we need is a reform of front-of-package labelling laws that would preclude the ability of companies to market their products as 'healthful' on the fronts of their packages."

Freedhoff said many cereal boxes promote protein, fibre, and grains, but hide high sugar content.

While those numbers are available in nutritional information panels, Freedhoff said it's unrealistic to place the onus completely on individual people to do the research.

And as a doctor, he said cereal isn't generally his first choice for breakfast, even if it is lower in sugar.

"If you do want to look at cereal and grams of sugar, I think probably having a cereal that has less than four to six grams of sugar per serving is probably a fair bet from a sugar perspective," he said. "But that doesn't mean you're getting a bowl full of goodness."

He said eating an egg or whole grain toast is a better breakfast option.

About the Author

Jason Osler

Jason Osler is the national 'trends' columnist for CBC Radio.

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