Food giant General Mills must face a lawsuit over the marketing of its Cheerios Protein brand according to a ruling from a federal judge.
The company has failed in its fight to stave off the prospect of legal action from consumers over the product, which billed itself as a high-protein alternative to regular Cheerios. The main difference between the two was in fact that the protein version contained 17-times more sugar per recommended serving.
In a decision taken in San Francisco on Wednesday (10 August), US district judge Thelton Henderson refused to dismiss a plaintiff's claim that General Mills had violated federal nutritional and labeling laws for "misbranding" Cheerios Protein.
The judge asserted that he was "skeptical" that legal action against the brand would succeed, but also refused to disregard a further claim that reasonable consumers would likely be duped by the packaging – given that the text on the cereal box mentioned sugar content and the fact that it was "sweetened" in small print.
General Mills has been looking to appeal to the more health-concious consumer of late, recently rolling out a spot to remind parents that many of its cereals are free from artificial flavors and colors - so this latest move could come as a blow to its brand positioning.
Cheerios Protein is sold in Oats and Honey and Cinnamon Almond variations, and contains seven grams of protein per-serving versus three grams per-serving for regular cheerios.
Those interested in pursuing legal action against General Mills said the real difference was "negligible" because the serving size of Cherios Protein and the calorie content per-serving, was twice as large.
The lawsuit was filed in November 2015 by non-profit group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) on behalf of shoppers in California and New York.
“We know that consumers are deceived to their detriment by this product,"said the group's litigation director Maia Kats, adding that she looked forward to the opportunity "to prove so in court."
Mike Siemienas, a General Mills spokesman, told Reuters that the company does not discuss pending legal action.
Last year, General Mills launched a digital campaign that reinforced the company’s commitment to making its products more natural.