Cereal sales have been slumping and so have sales of soy. What to do? If you are General Mills, you come up with a “breakfast option” that promises to “deliver long-lasting energy with taste that kids can enjoy.” That new product is Cheerios Protein.
PROTEIN IS IN!
The word “protein” in the product name is no accident. Tom Vierhile, Innovation Insights Director at Datamonitor Consumer, reports, “Interest in protein has grown faster than interest in almost any other nutrient or ingredient.” NPD Online Research Group adds that at least half of American adults are consciously trying to add more protein to their diets and are receptive to the idea of buying protein-packed products that could help them get healthy or lose weight. For Matt McQuinn, senior marketing manager for new products at General Mills, all this buzz about protein represents “a significant opportunity in cereal.”
What kind of protein? Cheap, plant-based protein, especially soy. GMO soy. According to McQuinn, soy is ideal because it’s a “complete vegetarian protein” with a “taste profile” that “works best in cereals to deliver the protein that consumers want.”
Cheerios Protein packs seven grams of protein in each 1 1/4 cup serving. The oats and honey flavor takes its protein from soy protein and lentils, the cinnamon almond flavor from soy protein isolate, soy flour and almonds. Seven grams of protein appears to be four grams more than the three grams found in a serving of regular Cheerios, and about five grams more than found in flavors such as Honey Nut, Yogurt Burst and Dark Chocolate Crunch Cheerios. I use the word “appears” because serving sizes for General Mills cereals range from 3/4 cup to 1 1/4 cups, depending on how the company hopes to fool consumers or where it wants its advertising emphasis to lie. In the case of Cheerios Protein, it clearly wants us to think protein. Consumers impressed with seven grams might respond far less favorably to 5.6 grams per serving, the calculation based on a one-cup serving.
AND SUGAR IS IN
The obvious question is, Can a bowl of Cheerios soy-led with “crunchy granola clusters” possibly taste good? Well, General Mills thinks it has that problem handled! The answer is sugar. Cheerios Protein contains 16 or 17 grams of sugar (4 teaspoons) per 1 1/4 cup serving (or about 13 grams per one cup serving). By comparison, a one cup serving of regular Cheerios has but one gram (¼ teaspoon) sugar. Even obviously sweet Cheerios flavors (such as Honey Nut, Chocolate or even Frosted Cheerios) contain significantly less sugar than Cheerios Protein. These other flavors come in at nine grams of sugar per 3/4 cup serving (12 grams per one cup serving). In fact, sugar would be the number one ingredient in Cheerios Protein if it didn’t appear under so many different names. Sugarcoating the bitter, beany taste of soy are sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, molasses, carmelized syrup and something called “Refiner’s Syrup,” which is apparently a byproduct of cane sugar manufacture.
General Mills expects boxes of Cheerios Protein to “sit comfortably in the mainstream breakfast aisle” right alongside boring, old, yellow-box Cheerios. Keeping it company will be its thirteen high-sugar siblings Honey Nut Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios Medley Crunch, Multi-Grain Cheerios, Multi-Grain Cheerios Peanut Butter, Dark Chocolate Crunch Cheerios, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, Frosted Cheerios, Banana Nut Cheerios, Chocolate Cheerios, Cinnamon Burst Cheerios, Dulce de Leche Cheerios, Fruity Cheerios and Yogurt Burst Cheerios.
IT’S ALL IN THE NAME
Cereal names like “multi-grain,” “honey nut” and “yogurt burst” in the lineup make it clear that Cheerios Protein is not the first “health washed” product rolled out by General Mills. But it’s the first Cheerios product to emphasize protein. In contrast, Yogurt Burst Cheerios—marketed as a “memorable breakfast sensation”—contains only 2 grams of protein per ¾ cup serving (about 2.7 grams per cup). It gains its healthy halo from yogurt, which the ingredient list reveals to be a “naturally yogurt flavored coating” consisting of sugar, fractionated palm kernel oil, dextrose, corn starch, dried strawberries, dried nonfat yogurt (heat-treated after culturing) (cultured nonfat milk), color added, soy lecithin, nonfat milk, natural flavor and maltodextrin. Hard to believe, but there’s less sugar in there than in the newbie that has been deceptively named Cheerios Protein.
Whether Cheerios Protein will appeal to consumers and achieve “high penetration” of the 10.1 billion dollar cereal market remains to be seen. The product was just rolled out in May, after all. Although General Mills, Kellogg and other big companies whine about plateauing profits, 91 percent of American households still eat cold cereal—though more and more stressed-out families on the run seem to be switching to the portable cereals known as “breakfast bars.”
Right now Cheerios is trying to create buzz for its new product with questions on its website and in social media like “How do you fuel your family?” They’d even like you to tell on Twitter how you get your family going with #Cheerios Protein. Let’s let them know what we think!
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2014