Chocolate Cheerios, Corporate Growth, and Obesity

Once upon a time there was “Cheerios”. For almost 40 years, up until the late 1970′s, consumers had only one Cheerios flavor to choose from. And then General Mills, corporate owner of the Cheerios brand, introduced Honey Nut Cheerios. It was an instant success. Sweeter (mostly due to sugar, not honey) than it’s elder sibling, it quickly conquered the hearts and taste buds of children across America. In the next decade, the two Cheerios brands were served in hundreds of millions of breakfasts across the nation.

But as competition grew, and the need to grow profit too, GM had to continuously innovate to stay ahead. And thus, in the past 15 years, we have seen no less than 15 variations on the “O” theme including Multigrain, Berry Burst, Yogurt Burst, and now Chocolate Cheerios.

Unfortunately, none of the innovations over the years produced a healthier or more nutritious product. Usually a new product meant more sugar added, less fiber, and in some cases additives such as artificial food colorings. But the health claims kept getting better, usually in inverse proportion to the true nutritional value of the product.

So as General Mills has grown, so have our waistlines. We’re not picking specifically on this manufacturer. The phenomena is not limited to GM or just the cereal category. It is the story of the food industry as a whole. Cut throat competition and quarterly earning reports mandate “growth! growth! growth!” in sales.

But on the demand side, there’s only so many calories people can consume in a day. Or maybe this is the reason we’re packing on the pounds?

Anyway, we got a bit carried away. Let’s get back to CC (Chocolate Cheerios) and see how this new product stacks up nutritionally.

What you need to know:

The nutrition facts panel tells an interesting story. At 100 calories per serving (before adding milk), CC is on the lower end of the breakfast cereal calorie count. Nice. But as with most cereals, the 3/4 of a cup serving size does not represent what most people truly consume.

Despite the prominent “whole grain guarantee” by manufacturer General Mills, there is only 1 gram of fiber per serving in here. What a let down. Honey Nut Cheerios has 2 grams of fiber. Not to mention regular Cheerios with 3 grams.

Sugarwise, we’re talking about 9 grams or just over 2 teaspoons per serving. That’s not as high as Cocoa Puffs, but it’s nine times more sugar than in regular Cheerios.

Here is the ingredient list:

Whole Grain Corn, Sugar, Corn Meal, Corn Syrup, Whole Grain Oats, Canola and/or Rice Bran Oil, Cocoa Processed with Alkali, Color Added, Salt, Dried Corn Syrup, Corn Bran, Barley Malt Extract, Trisodium Phosphate, Vanillin, Vitamin E (Mixed Tocopherols) and BHT Added to Preserve Freshness. Vitamins and Minerals: Calcium Carbonate, Vitamin C (Sodium Ascorbate), Zinc and Iron (Mineral Nutrients), a B Vitamin (Niacinamide), Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine Hydrochloride), Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), Vitamin B1 (Thiamin Mononitrate), Vitamin A (Palmitate), a B Vitamin (Folic Acid), Vitamin B12, Vitamin D3.

Yes it’s made with whole grain corn, but also with corn meal. Notice that sugar is the number 2 ingredient. There are four appearances of sugar synonyms in the product.  The Cocoa Processed with Alkali – Also known as Dutch Processed Cocoa – helps to remove the natural acidity of the cocoa bean. Unfortunately, it also removes the beneficial flavanoids found in the cocoa beans. BHT (E321) is a controversial additive that keeps a product fresh for longer, but at the potential price of hyperactive kids or cancer.

The most maddening aspect of Chocolate Cheerios though is not what we have discussed so far, but rather the bold health claim that appears inside the red heart:

May Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease

You can’t miss it on the box. This claim is qualified in tiny print at the bottom of the box:

Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease. Chocolate Cheerios is low in fat, saturated fat free, and naturally cholesterol free.

This is such BULL. Of course this product is cholesterol free, it’s not made from any animal products. And obviously a breakfast cereal is not going to be high in fats – it’s a C E R E A L for heaven’s sake. How will all the added sugars help the heart?

As for the logic FAIL. It’s the same as saying diets low in salt are heart healthy; candy is low in salt; pig out!!!

Bottom line: Chocolate Cheerios may be a tasty treat, but not a mainstay nutritious breakfast cereal.

What to do at the supermarket:

If you’re going to buy a Cheerios product, your top choice should be the original. Number 2 should be the multigrain followed by Honey Nut. Leave Chocolate Cheerios product be.

Want to learn more? Download our free ebook with the top 10 tips for choosing healthy cereal.

  • The 50 Best Health Blogs

    If I want cereal, I choose the original version of Fiber One. It is very versatile.

    Sometimes I eat it by itself, without any added sweetener or milk.

    Sometimes I have it cold, with plain yogurt, ground flaxseed, and stevia. Lots of prebiotics and probiotics.

    Sometimes I heat it in a microwave, covered with mixed veggies, ground flaxseed, and unsalted butter. The Fiber One soaks up the butter and tastes delicious.

    Jim Purdy

  • Dave Schy

    I blame Ben & Jerry for this whole mess…

    Here is a recipe for my favorite breakfast cereal.

    I am boiling a batch as we speak (type)

  • Karen Bannan from NaturalAsPossibleMom

    I tend to avoid all “traditional” cereal manufacturers. My kids eat Kashi Mighty Bites or Trader Joe’s Joe’s Os.

    I have to say, though, I can remember eating a cereal as a child– wish I could remember its name — that was some type of s’mores mish-mash. Chocolate, marshmallows, sugar. My mom just didn’t know any better, I guess. We weren’t as educated back then.

    As for The 50 Best Health Blogs: Did you know your Fiber One has aspartame in it? Yup. Artificial sweetener. It’s so terrible and so sad. I loved Fiber One. I used it to make yummy chocolate haystack cookies with melted organic semi-sweet chocolate until someone clued me in. I just can’t do artificial sweetener and outright refuse to give it to my kids so that recipe is dead. Sigh.

  • carol

    Good post. While it is true that “technically” they can make the heart disease health claim (because the cereal meets the fat, saturated fat, etc. criteria), I don’t think the claim meets the requirement of CFR 101.14(a)(1) that it be “complete, truthful, and NOT MISLEADING” (caps added).

    With 36 calories (36% of the product’s calories) taken up by sugars, there is much less room for the company’s star nutritional ingredient (oats). This is why fiber is so low. And fiber is a key heart healthy ingredient they tout for their products on a page linked from the Choco Cheerios page as “related health info” on “lowering cholesterol”:

    And at one gram of total fiber, you can forget about soluble fiber (the kind of fiber found in oats that has been shown to help lower cholesterol), because it will be insignificant. The claim and Web site are clearly misleading, and I don’t see the claim on this product lasting the rest of the year. Either way, it’s important for FDA to set a higher bar for foods that use health claims, if health claims are to be meaningful.

  • LisaB

    I love Chocolate Cheerios.

  • Dee

    @The 50 Best Health Blogs
    We don’t buy chocolate Cheerios for breakfast, we buy it for a snack later at night when the munchies hit. It is better than a bowl of ice cream or potato chips for snacking. And 9 grams of sugar far outweighs many of the cereals on the shelf.

  • Ben

    I think you are mistaken unless they changed it but the fiber is 2g per serving. I am sitting here reading the box and eating a bowl as I type this.

  • marvetta

    The chocolate cheerios & the banana nut cheerios are Freakin Great! If people havent realized it yet, all foods that are supposed to be “good for us” usually has something in it that overpowers what they took out, If the foods didnt have any of that stuff in it, the food would taste like tree bark or newspaper. If something as simple as eating a bowl of cereal will help the most important organ in our bodies, then… Eat Your Heart Out! if the fat, salt etc is a concern, then we just need to modify our diets omitting those things on a daily basis is all. KEEP IT UP CHEERIOS I ABSOLUTELY LOOOOVE THE CEREALS.

  • Christina Anne Gonzalez

    Just overheard a conversation in the office… the girls were talking about “Fruity Cheerios” and thought it would be a good idea for the kids.. Sure! lets get our servings of fruit in helpings of sugar covered, artificially colored,  BHT preserved crap (sprinkled with some vitamins). gag.

    Copy of the ingredients of fruity cheerios:INGREDIENTS:
    Whole grain corn, sugar, whole grain oats, corn syrup, corn starch, orange juice concentrate, canola and/or rice bran oil, calcium carbonate, salt, trisodium phosphate, vitamin C (sodium ascorbate), zinc and iron (mineral nutrients), red 40, yellow 6, blue 1, and other color added, sodium citrate, a B vitamin (niacinamide), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B1 (thiamin mononitrate), vitamin A (palmitate), a B vitamin (folic acid), natural flavor, vitamin B12, vitamin D, wheat flour, vitamin E (mixed tocopherols), BHT and sodium benzoate added to preserve freshness and color.