A federal judge in California dismissed a class-action lawsuit accusing General Mills of falsely advertising its cereals as healthy when they contain high levels of sugar that can contribute to heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. The case was filed three years ago.
Judge Jeffrey White's Aug. 13 order said the plaintiffs "cannot plausibly claim to be misled" about the sugar content of their cereal purchases. The company's front-of-package and side panel labeling lists "all truthful and required objective facts about its products," he wrote.
The judge also noted there is no consensus about how much sugar is healthy, Food Navigator reported. "Defendant is under no obligation to warn its consumers that certain levels of sugar may be associated with poor health results," he wrote.
The results of this case seem to indicate it's caveat emptor — let the buyer beware — when it comes to consuming sugary cereals. As long as a CPG company has provided honest and required facts about its products, consumers must make their own decisions about whether the amount of sugar they contain is "healthy" or not.
Such an outcome appears almost inevitable since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not updated its definition of "healthy" since 1994. The agency also has not clearly set forth how much sugar in a food product is too much.
A 28-gram serving of General Mills' Honey Nut Cheerios contains 9 grams of sugar — 32.7% of total calories, according to the complaint. But, as Food Navigator pointed out, some yogurts may have 12 to 18 grams of sugar per serving, and Tropicana Original 100% orange juice contains 22 grams per serving.
This murky situation can make it easier for food and beverage manufacturers to surround their products with a health halo, making them seem much healthier than they really are. Packages of Honey Nut Cheerios boast that whole grain oats are the cereal's No. 1 ingredient. The box also focuses on the honey in the product, even though it's the fifth ingredient listed.
General Mills touts the product's soluble fiber content as potentially reducing the risk of heart disease when included in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol. However, to get 3 grams of the nutrient — about half of what doctors recommend people eat each day — a person would have to have four servings of Honey Nut Cheerios, since each bowl contains 0.75 grams of the fiber.
Upcoming labeling changes requiring added sugars to be listed may make a difference — as long as consumers actually read the label and understand what it means. Many people say they want more ingredient information on food and beverage labels, though they sometimes ignore it. Other times, consumers don't know what the information means.
Adding to the potential for consumer misinformation is the fact that health claims work. According to the FDA's 2014 Health and Diet Survey, almost 9 in 10 consumers use health claims to choose products. If there is a positive health claim, members of a consumer studies team at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition's Office of Analytics and Research said at a 2017 public hearing, a consumer may stop reading label information, assuming a product with one positive health aspect will have others.
Beside health claims, cereal makers use cartoon characters, bright colors and other marketing appeals to entice younger consumers and their parents into buying their products. Studies show kids request and prefer brands they're recently seen advertised, so it's hardly surprising these techniques persist.
While astute consumers may take a dim view of such marketing approaches, cereal makers are looking for any advantage they can get because of shifting demands and competition from other breakfast products. Unit sales of ready-to-eat cereal fell 1.5% in 2018, according to Nielsen data, and purchases dropped from $8.8 billion in 2016 to $8.3 billion last year.
Even though this lawsuit was dismissed, the issue isn't going away. Two similar lawsuits filed in 2016 against cereal makers involving the same law firm and some of the same plaintiffs remain in play. A class-action complaint claiming Kellogg overstated health claims on its cereals and cereal bars was recently referred to mediation, while another against Post is still in court.
But this ruling may hasten the end of these cases. If accurate nutritional information is available to consumers — regardless of any other label claims — this ruling says they are not being deceived. If there were regulated definitions of some of these claims, perhaps limiting the percentage of sugar on items that can be labeled as "healthy," it could make a difference. In the meantime, it appears the onus is on consumers to learn more about the ingredient content in the food they eat.