A proposed class action is attacking Kellogg Sales Company for allegedly leveraging “consumer confusion” and intentionally misrepresenting that its high-sugar cereals and snack bars are healthy, all despite a wealth of evidence that indicates consuming too much sugar is not good for you.
What’s this lawsuit about? Cereal?
Across a dense 153 pages, the lawsuit out of New York’s Northern District paints a vivid picture of how the leading cereal producer has mispresented its sugary cereal and Nutri-Grain bars as “effective in promoting bodily health and preventing disease” in a world where one of the highest priorities for food shoppers is to eat healthier.
Kellogg, the case alleges, has successfully positioned itself since at least the mid-2000s as a leader in the market for supposedly healthier brands of processed foods, freely wielding terms such as “wholesome,” “nutritious,” and “healthy lifestyle” on its product labels and in marketing materials. Kellogg prominently represents, for instance, that some of its cereals are “heart healthy,” and emphasizes the whole grain, fiber and fruit content in others, the suit says.
The heart of the lawsuit, however, concerns what Kellogg allegedly chooses not to emphasize, and, according to the case, hopes consumers will either ignore, forget, or simply disregard in favor of what the company deems more important than the amount of sugar in its cereals.
“Healthy, Nutritious, Wholesome?”
Underlying Kellogg’s health-forward veneer is what the case describes as an aggressive policy and practice of consistently using certain words and phrases—as well as outright misinformation—to suggest that its cereal and snack products are healthy when, in fact, the opposite is true. This is done by Kellogg, the case alleges, with the help of everything from the cereal packages themselves to online articles that cherry-pick information to support the company’s statements. But what these efforts really serve to do, the suit claims, is to obscure or distract from the bottom line: that consuming excessive amounts of sugar outweighs any apparent health benefits of eating certain Kellogg cereals and snack bars, the suit claims.
Statements that these cereals and bars are ‘healthy,’ ‘nutritious,’ and ‘wholesome’ are false, or at least highly misleading, because, due to their high sugar content, consumption of these foods is decidedly unhealthy, and the consequences of consuming the products—increased risk for, and in some cases contraction of chronic disease—are incompatible with Kellogg’s representations that the products are ‘healthy,’ ‘nutritious,’ and ‘wholesome.’”
Everything from Raisin Bran, Frosted Mini-Wheats and Smart Start cereal to each variety of Nutri-Grain cereal bars are intentionally propped up by Kellogg as healthy even though they’re plainly high-sugar foods, the case stresses. Consuming Kellogg’s cereals and snack bars, the four consumers who filed the suit argue, is “likely to contribute to excess added sugar consumption, and, thereby, increased risk for and contraction of chronic disease.”
Whole grain, fiber, fruit . . . and sugar
After spending nearly 60 pages expounding on sugar, its effects on the human body and the physiological dangers of consuming too much of the stuff, the lawsuit dives into the reality-distorting tactics Kellogg has allegedly employed over the last decade to deemphasize its products’ sugar content. What the lawsuit presents reads as a blueprint of misinformation, intentional omissions, and old-fashioned deception meant to hide or at least make a little less obvious the sugar content and general unhealthiness of Kellogg’s cereals.
One such tactic, the case says, is Kellogg’s strategy of “calling out” the supposed benefits of its cereals and cereal bars, particularly their whole grain, fiber and “real fruit” content. While Kellogg emphasizes these aspects of its products, it simultaneously and intentionally “minimizes, de-emphasizes, hides, obscures, and otherwise omits” contrary yet material information concerning sugar content, the lawsuit says, as well as the negative effects of regular added sugar consumption.
Another such strategy spotlighted in the suit is Kellogg’s apparent leverage of consumers’ aversion to high fructose corn syrup. As the plaintiffs tell it, Kellogg has done all it can to capitalize on consumers’ weariness of high fructose corn syrup by “touting the absence of that ingredient.” This, the case argues, serves to deceptively suggest some of Kellogg’s high-sugar products may be healthier because of their lack of high-fructose corn syrup.
Ultimately, consumers are left confused by this strategy, the case claims, in that they may “incorrectly believe that [high fructose corn syrup] is a substantially more dangerous form of added sugar than other forms.”
Check your sources
The case goes on to allege that although Kellogg often claims to pass along the latest in food science, the company in truth “cherry-picks information,” sometimes from “industry-funded or other dubious sources” while omitting the rigorous scientific evidence that backs up what’s being discussed.
The complaint describes one “particularly egregious” example: a pamphlet titled “Cereal: The Complete Story,” which is available on the Kellogg website. In the pamphlet, Kellogg, according to the suit, claims that studies have shown that eating cereal for breakfast is associated with lower BMI levels in children, “a relationship that holds regardless of the amount of sugar in the cereal.”
The studies cited by Kellogg, however, do not validly support this statement, the lawsuit says, pointing out that one study was designed by General Mills, another big-time player in the cereal industry. The suit claims this “notoriously unreliable” type of study was based on food diaries, where height and weight were self-reported by participants and portion sizes “were later just estimated.”
Further, the other study’s analysis was not cereal-specific, the suit says, and instead questioned whether those who ate more whole grain also consumed more “beneficial nutrients.” In the end, the data found that “increased whole grain consumption did not decrease sugar consumption,” according to the suit.
An alleged campaign of misinformation
According to the lawsuit, Kellogg, through its website, product labels and other avenues, has intentionally spread misinformation about the dangers of consuming added sugar. In particular, the case cites the 91 pages of articles on Kellogg’s website organized under the headings “News,” “Study,” “Myth vs. Fact,” and “Tips” that, the plaintiffs argue, “are full of misleading information concerning the high amounts of added sugar in Kellogg’s cereal.”
One such piece titled “The Sweet Truth About Sugar In Cereal” was published in 2013 in the website’s “News” section. As the complaint lays it out, this article sufficiently encapsulates Kellogg’s efforts to downplay or outright obscure the facts about excess sugar consumption:
For example, an April 29, 2013 ‘NEWS’ story featured on the front page (despite that it is dated before many articles not so featured) is titled, ‘The Sweet Truth About Sugar In Cereal.’ This ‘news’ story begins, ‘Sugar often gets a bad rap when it comes to breakfast cereals.’ Kellogg then asserts, ‘But the sweet truth is,’ that ‘Breakfast cereal accounts for just 4% of daily, added sugar intake in the U.S.,’ that ‘Eating cereal is linked to a higher consumption of micronutrients and to lower fat, and cholesterol intake,’ and that ‘[t]aking sugar out of cereals does not typically reduce its calories.’
The same story, after explaining that cereal supposedly must have sugar for its structure, also claims, ‘Remember, if there is any fruit in the cereal such as raisins, dates, or berries, the sugar count will be amplified due to the naturally occurring sugars in the fruit,’ but that ‘Those fruits do come with added benefits: they are carriers for other nutrients’ which is supposedly ‘Yet another reason for making cereal part of your daily routine!’
This ‘NEWS’ ‘story’ is not attributed to any author and does not provide any citation for any supposed statistics cited in the article.
The article is false and misleading, significantly downplaying the dangers of the added sugars in the cereal, pretending that they come from ‘good’ sources, like fruit, and pretending that it is impractical or impossible to reduce the sugar in cereal.”
Other articles published by Kellogg, the case goes on, attempt to leverage the company’s practice of “discussing or suggesting the supposedly beneficial aspects of its foods” while in the same breath “obscuring, ignoring, and otherwise minimizing” their detrimental health effects. Even videos on the defendant’s YouTube channel, the case claims, are rife with “highly-deceptive” statements that, among other aims, falsely suggest that:
Obesity is not linked to “calories in, calories out”;
That obesity among children is due to a lack of a “balanced lifestyle,” which the case calls “a blame tactic that intentionally shifts the focus away from the negative impact its foods have on health”;
High-sugar cereals help prevent overeating.
“Who eats only one serving?”
Citing FDA analysis on food consumption data from 2003-2008, the lawsuit states that “at least 10% of Americans eat at one sitting 2 to 2.6 times the amount of cereal as the labeled serving size.” Moreover, a General Mills study found that children six to 18 years old “typically eat about twice as much cereal in a single meal” compared to the suggested serving size.
What matters, the lawsuit stresses, are consumers’ actual eating habits. And, with that in mind, Kellogg’s high-sugar cereals, the case argues, “contribute significantly more sugar to their consumers’ diets than even the high amount” that exists within a single serving. So much as doubling one serving of Kellogg cereal, according to the complaint, would cause someone to consume “near or in excess (sometimes well in excess of their [American Heart Association]-recommended maximum daily sugar intake” through their breakfast meal alone.
“For this reason, the Kellogg high-sugar cereals are especially dangerous to the health of those who regularly consume them and therefore its deceptive health and wellness messaging for these products is particularly insidious,” the lawsuit reads, pointing out that Kellogg knew full well that consumers generally eat more than one helping of cereal at a time.
What products does the lawsuit mention?
The lawsuit claims that the products below have been subject to Kellogg’s alleged years-long practice of misleading consumers with health and wellness smoke and mirrors. (This list is not exhaustive.)
Kellogg’s Raisin Bran
3. Cinnamon Almond
4. Omega-3 250mg ALA from Flaxseed
5. With Cranberries
Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats
1. Bite Size - Original
2. Bite Size - Maple Brown Sugar
3. Bite Size - Strawberry
4. Bite Size – Strawberry Delight
5. Bite Size - Blueberry
6. Bite Size – Blueberry Muffin
7. Bite Size – Cinnamon Streusel
8. Big Bite – Original
9. Little Bites Original
10. Little Bites Cinnamon Roll
11. Little Bites Chocolate
12. Touch of Fruit in the Middle: Raspberry
13. Touch of Fruit in the Middle: Raisin
14. Touch of Fruit in the Middle: Mixed Berry
15. Harvest Delights – Blueberry with Vanilla Drizzle
16. Harvest Delights – Cranberry with Yogurt Drizzle
Kellogg’s Smart Start – Original Antioxidants
Nutri-Grain Cereal Bars
1. Apple Cinnamon
3. Mixed Berry
6. Strawberry Greek Yogurt
Nutri-Grain Soft-Baked Breakfast Bars
5. Mixed Berry
6. Apple Cinnamon
7. Strawberry Greek Yogurt
Nutri-Grain Oat & Harvest Bars
1. Blueberry Bliss
2. Country Strawberry
Nutri-Grain Harvest Hearty Breakfast Bars
1. Blueberry Bliss
2. Country Strawberry
3. Apple Cinnamon
Nutri-Grain Fruit Crunch Granola Bars
1. Apple Cobbler
2. Strawberry Parfait
Nutri-Grain Crunch Crunchy Breakfast Bars
1. Apple Cobbler
2. Strawberry Parfait
Nutri-Grain Fruit & Nut Chewy Breakfast Bars
1. Blueberry Almond
2. Cherry Almond
Who does the lawsuit look to represent?
The case asks the court to certify a proposed class of all consumers in New York who, at any time within the last six years, bought any high-sugar Kellogg cereal or snack bars bearing health and wellness claims.