We’ve been subjected to lofty health claims on foods since seemingly the beginning of time, and cereals seem to be the worst offenders of this practice. Wheaties claimed to be the “Breakfast of Champions”, Cocoa Krispies asserted it could “Boost Your Child’s Immunity”, and Frosted Mini Wheats practically summarized a research abstract with “Clinically shown to improve kids’ attentiveness by nearly 20%”. Turns out all these health-related statements on foods ARE regulated by the FDA, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be misleading. We’ve always been taught to not judge a book by its cover, so does this apply to foods as well?
Simply put: yes. Statements on the front of food packages can assert that the food itself or an ingredient helps fight a disease or health condition. They can be in the category of nutrient content claims, which use words like “reduced”, “low”, or “high” to refer to the amount of a certain nutrient in the food. Even though they may seem like simple words, the use of “low” or “high” requires meeting FDA standards. Lastly, food companies can utilize structure and function claims, which are general statements about the way nutrients in the foods work in the body – example: “calcium helps build strong bones” (check out more information here). Even with this amount of regulation, food companies publish statements that are technically true, but don’t always tell the whole story.
The prime example in the news right now is Cheerios. This OG of the cereal game has been under hot water recently. First, Cheerios claimed to be Gluten-Free. Turns out they weren’t using certified gluten-free oats, but rather stripping the gluten from the oats after the cereal was processed, which isn’t how the whole gluten-free thing works. Now, Cheerios has to answer to authorities once again after a lawsuit has emerged against its newest addition to the family: Cheerios Protein. The Center for Science in the Public Interest is suing General Mills for misleading the public by claiming the Cheerios Protein is a “high-protein, healthful alternative to Cheerios” (source). The front of the box highlights “11 grams protein”, but don’t forget the fine print: “with milk”. Before adding a ½ cup of milk, this cereal boasts 7g protein per serving. Original Cheerios contains 3g protein per serving, but when you compare the cereals in terms of serving size by weight, there’s only a 0.7g difference in protein. The biggest difference is Cheerios Protein packs a whopping 17g sugar per serving, compared to 1g in Original Cheerios.
This is precisely why you can’t trust what food companies print on the front. Cheerios didn’t lie about how much protein was in the cereal, but also failed to mention the whole 4 teaspoons of sugar per serving thing. I believe this is the exact definition of a “lie by omission”. There are a million better ways to get high-quality protein, without the side of sugar. The only way to be a smart consumer is to turn the package over. Study the nutrition label, the percent daily value, and the ingredients list. You’ll find all the information you ever need, without all the confusing marketing fluff. It’s like when you watch commercials for movies that include snippets of the reviews. That new movie “The 33”, about the Chilean miners, is promoted as an “intense and highly emotional journey”, which sounds great and all, but my husband likes to point out the review comes from “Ain’t It Cool News”. I’m no movie expert, but I’d rather trust my reviews from places that don’t combine the word “news” with the phrase “ain’t it cool”.
Regardless of what is bolded or circled or highlighted or written in fireworks on the front of the package, don’t be distracted by shiny things. The nutrition label may not be glittery, but at least it gives you the facts. It’s why you get your news from The New York Times, and not Ain’t It Cool News. Seriously, why is this a real thing.