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.


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?