Got Sugar? The Secret Ingredient in Cheerios Protein

Jun 09, 2014

There’s a new product out called Cheerios Protein, but there’s more sugar in there than protein.

The word “protein” in the name, however,  is no accident.    Today’s marketers know “protein” is a buzz word with tremendous appeal to the American public.   Because boxed cereals like Cheerios are not exactly renowned for their protein content,  adding protein represents a “significant opportunity” for General Mills and other big cereal manufacturers.   As Sarah Nassauer writes in the Wall Street Journal, “Protein has become a sticking point for the cereal industry.  Overall cereal sales have fallen, in part because Americans are buying up almost anything that touts protein, like yogurt, protein bars and fast-food breakast sandwiches.  Consumers often see protein as filling, healthy and good for weight management.”

According to NPD Online Research Group,  at least half of American adults are consciously trying to add more protein to their diets.  Tom Vierhile, Innovation Insights Director at Datamonitor Consumer, says“Interest in protein has grown faster than interest in almost any other nutrient or ingredient.”  Industry consultant Jeff Hilton of BrandHive adds, “Protein is just amazing in terms of how aggressively it is growing.  One of the reasons why protein is so hot is that it sits on both ends of the age spectrum, and in between.  You’ve got younger body builders who are interested in it, and middle-aged weekend warriors who are looking to protein to help maintain fitness.  And then you have older consumers who are looking at protein for the anti-wasting effects.  So it really drives all ages.”

Now General Mills has rolled out Cheerios Protein, a “breakfast option” that promises to “deliver long-lasting energy with taste that kids can enjoy.”   What kind of protein?   Cheap, plant-based protein, especially soy.   GMO soy.    According to Matt McQuinn, senior marketing manager for new products at General Mills, 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 7 grams of protein in each 1¼ 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 4 grams more than the 3 grams found in a serving of regular Cheerios, and about 5 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 ¾ cup to 1 ¼ 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 7 grams would apparently respond far less favorably to 5.6 grams per serving, the calculation based on a one cup serving.

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 ¼ 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 9 grams of sugar per ¾ 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 13 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.

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!

Don't ever miss a blog

Subscribe to stay Up-To-Date