Last year, General Mills launched a new product aimed at health-conscious customers: Cheerios Protein, a version of its popular cereal made with whole-grain oats and lentils. Early reviews were favorable. The cereal, Huffington Post reported, tasted mostly like regular Cheerios, although “it seemed like they were sweetened and flavored a little more aggressively.” Meanwhile, ads boasted that the cereal would offer “long-lasting energy” as opposed to a sugar crash.
But earlier this month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued General Mills, saying that there’s very little extra protein in Cheerios Protein compared to the original brand and an awful lot more sugar—17 times as much, in fact. So why would General Mills try to market a product as containing protein when it’s really a box fill of carbs and refined sugar?
The easiest answer: Because history has shown it works. For more than a century, brands have successfully used health-related claims and gimmicky marketing to sell sugar as a breakfast product. The earliest cereal products were indeed intended as a better alternative to heavy morning meals. Around the 1930s, companies started marketing cereal to children, and they found that younger consumers infinitely preferred a sweeter product, while also being swayed by lovable mascots in advertising campaigns. (A 2014 study even found that these characters are designed and placed on the shelf to make eye contact with kids, establishing a sense of trust and connection.) But brands are now finding it more difficult to convince better-informed and rightly skeptical consumers of the health benefits of sugary cereal, which looks to be falling from the perch it enjoyed in American food culture for a century.