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This is how gullible General Mills thinks Americans are

Welcome to the cereal aisle. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Macho men and women, beware.

General Mills, the maker of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Lucky Charms, Fiber One, and Cheerios, has a clever new trick, according to a lawsuit brought against the company this week by consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The suit alleges that the cereal maker has been selling a new product called Cheerios Protein, which the company introduced last year, under false pretenses.

"The overall impression of the box is that the cereal has a lot more protein than traditional Cheerios, but when you look at the nutrition label, it's clear that Protein Cheerios has only a little bit more protein, and a lot more sugar," said Michael Jacobson, president of CSPI. "We think that's very deceptive."

A glance at nutritional information for the two cereals, which is available on General Mills's Web site, reveals that a single serving of Cheerios Protein has seven grams of protein and seventeen grams of sugar. A serving of the original Cheerios, meanwhile, has three grams of protein and only a single gram of sugar.

The 4-gram difference in protein makes it hard to argue that that necessarily merits adding big bold letters to the packaging that spell the word PROTEIN. After all, the recommended daily intake of protein is 56 grams for men and 46 grams for women, according to the Institute of Medicine, which advises the government. And the average person living in the United States consumes closer to 80 grams.

"This is a very minimal change when you look at how much protein people eat," said Jacobson.

But here's the thing: The added protein is actually even less significant than a first look at the labels makes it seem, because the serving sizes aren't the same. For regular Cheerios, the nutrition facts correspond to 28 grams of cereal.

For Cheerios Protein, however, the listed protein and sugar contents correspond to 55 grams.

After adjusting for the difference, Cheerios Protein — that muscular-looking bowl of morning goodness — packs only about a gram more protein by weight. The good news is that the more accurate comparison means there isn't quite as much extra sugar as it seemed. By weight, Cheerios Protein has just over eight — instead of 17 — times as much sugar as its simpler counterpart.

The chart below shows the adjusted protein and sugar contents for the two cereals — Cheerios Protein and no-frills Cheerios. Only one is substantially different.

The issue here isn't that one variety of Cheerios has more sugar than another. Or that a new flavor isn't quite as healthy as the original. Cheerios come in many varieties — General Mills lists 12 extras on its Web site. And all of them — every single one — is made with more sugar than the original. But that is to be expected given that the spinoffs include flavors such as Chocolate, Apple Cinnamon and Honey Nut.

The problem with Cheerios Protein, according to CSPI, is that the cereal doesn't make good on the core promise of its name, which might be lost onto customers who don't have the time or wherewithal to realize this when making purchasing decisions.

"I think people wouldn't buy the cereal if they knew how little the difference in protein is," Jacobson said. "But that fact isn't obvious."

General Mills, which dismissed the lawsuit as "publicity-seeking," says it isn't misleading customers at all. "To state the facts, an equal amount of Cheerios Protein contains 18 percent more protein by weight than original Cheerios," the company wrote in an e-mail statement. "Cheerios Protein contains 7 grams of protein per serving — and it does qualify as a good source of high-quality protein under the FDA standard. Cheerios Protein provides a good source of protein in every labeled serving – and it is accurately labeled."

It's easy enough to see why General Mills wants in on the blossoming protein business. More than half of Americans say they want more of it in their diet. What's more, they are proving the talk isn't cheap: The protein shake business has become a behemoth. So too has the protein bar market, which was already worth more than $500 million in 2013. Sales of health and wellness bars, which often advertise protein content, are growing more than twice as fast as the overall food industry. Adding protein to, well, just about everything seems like a good business decision these days.

It's also clear why the cereal behemoth added so much sugar to its new offering. Sweetened brands dominate the cereal aisle — Honey Nut Cheerios, which have about 17.6 grams of sugar per 55 grams of cereal, have been the best-selling cereal for years; Frosted Flakes, which has 22 grams of sugar per 55 grams of cereal, has long come in second. General Mills just wants Cheerios Protein to taste good. Especially given that the cereal is beefed up with little soy protein clusters, which, as Tom Philpott pointed out on Mother Jones, probably wouldn't be too appealing without a heavy dose of sugar.

No matter the reasoning, the CSPI suit raises an important and timely question. At a time when big food companies are racing to meet the demands of an increasingly choosier customer base, offering new products with sexy labels, the U.S. government is struggling to keep up. There are simply too many new labels popping up for regulation to keep pace. In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration issued warning letters to 17 food manufacturers, mandating that they correct labels that made unfounded health claims.

General Mills isn't lying anywhere on its cereal boxes, but does it owe customers more information up front? Making the difference between Cheerios Protein and regular Cheerios more obvious certainly wouldn't hurt customers. It might, however, mean punier sales. And the cereal business can't exactly afford that these days.