Protein Cheerios: a lawsuit, and reminder to read nutrition panels

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When the fat was taken out of packaged foods, manufacturers plastered that message all over their packages. And we. the consumers — having been told by the “experts” that fat-free was the way to eat — couldn’t grab those products off the shelves fast enough.

Later we realized that what made those fat-free gems so palatable was the sugar in its various forms, which was added to those products. But that wasn’t until much later.

Now, many consumers have gotten the message that eating a diet higher in protein/lower in carbs, particularly the refined variety, is really the healthier alternative for a lot of us. Protein is the new buzzword when it comes to healthy.

So it’s no surprise that food manufacturers are rushing to put protein into their products and make sure shoppers know about it.

And I suppose it’s should come as no surprise that along with the protein comes our old pal sugar. And maybe manufacturers figured we wouldn’t notice.

But the feisty Center for Science in the Public Interest is paying attention. It took notice when cereal powerhouse General Mills started touting its new Cheerios Protein, which shouts across the box’s cover that it has 11 grams of protein with milk. To the untrained eye, that sounds good, right?

Nope, says the Center, which filed a lawsuit against General Mills last week, saying the company is guilty of false marketing the new variety as a high-protein alternative to traditional Cheerios. Instead, CSPI says, the big difference between Cheerios Protein and Cheerios is that the new product has 17 times as much sugar! (Read more here.)

Much of the difference in the amount of protein results due to the serving size, according to CSPI. A visit to the Cheerios website shows the traditional Cheerios serving size is 1 cup while that of Protein Cheerios is 1¼ cups.

To add insult to injury, the Protein Cheerios cost more than plain old Cheerios. Shoppers end up paying about 70 cents more at stores like Walmart, Giant Foods and Safeway, according to CSPI.

“A serving of Cheerios Protein, with its four teaspoons of sugar, has much more sugar than a typical cereal marketed to kids, such as Trix or Frosted Flakes,” CSPI president Michael F. Jacobson said in a statement. “They really ought to call the product Cheerios Sugar.”

Moral of the story: We all have to remember to read those nutritional data panels like we’re Sherlock Holmes in search of Moriarty. It’s a drag, but this isn’t something we do with a product one time and then we’re done. We’ve gotta check out that information every time we’re about to buy it. I’m always surprised when a perfectly fine product I’ve long purchased all of a sudden has sugar in it. But I can’t tell you how often it’s happened. So before you buy — particularly these new products touting their protein power — make sure you aren’t getting a giant serving of sugar as well.

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