One of several big CPG firms targeted in sugar-related lawsuits by the same team of plaintiff's attorneys in 2016, General Mills was accused of falsely advertising its cereals as healthy, wholesome and nutritious when they were in fact high in sugar, excessive amounts of which, the plaintiffs claimed, have been linked to everything from heart disease to type 2 diabetes.
While there is no specific regulation that disqualifies firms from stating or implying that a product is healthy or nutritious based on its sugar content (conditions of use for the nutrient content claim ‘healthy’ don’t mention sugar), the plaintiffs argued that federal regulations enshrined in California state law require that labels are not false or misleading.
“Statements that these products are ‘healthy,’ ‘nutritious,’ or ‘wholesome’ are false, or at least highly misleading, because, due to their high sugar content, consumption of these products is decidedly unhealthy,” said the plaintiffs.
Sugar accounts for 32.7% of the calories in Honey Nut Cheerios
Likewise, while the FDA does not define ‘high’ or ‘low’ sugar, the plaintiffs noted that sugar accounted for 32.7% of the calories in Honey Nut Cheerios (9g of sugar per 28g serving). To put this in perspective, however, other foods and beverages that are widely consumed at breakfast contain more sugar per serving (yogurts often contain 12-18g sugar per serving, while a small [8oz] glass of Tropicana Original 100% orange juice has 22g sugar).
Meanwhile the use of the Whole Grains Council stamp on selected products conferred a health halo that sugary products did not warrant, added the plaintiffs, who also took issue with the ‘heart healthy’ claims on some products, given that excessive sugar consumption increases the risk of heart disease.
Judge: 'Plaintiffs cannot plausibly claim to be misled'
However, in an August 13, 2019 order granting General Mills’ latest motion to dismiss the case (without leave to amend), US District Judge Jeffrey S. White said reasonable consumers were not being misled.
“Plaintiffs cannot plausibly claim to be misled about the sugar content of their cereal purchases because defendant provided them with all truthful and required objective facts about its products, on both the side panel of ingredients and the front of the products’ labeling.
“The actual ingredients were fully disclosed and it was up to the plaintiffs, as reasonable consumers, to come to their own conclusions about whether or not the sugar content was healthy for them.”
'There is no consensus on just how much sugar is healthy for consumption'
He added: “There is no consensus on just how much sugar is healthy for consumption… Defendant is under no obligation to warn its consumers that certain levels of sugar may be associated with poor health results.”
The court had previously noted that some claims with which the plaintiffs took issue were federally pre-empted; while others such as ‘simply made’ were not misleading to the reasonable consumer; and that some such as ‘great start,’ ‘sustained energy,’ and ‘full and focused,’ amounted to non-actionable puffery.
A similar case against Post Foods (Krommenhock et al v. Post Foods, 16-cv-04958) is still proceeding through the courts, while the parties in Hadley v. Kellogg (5:16-cv-04955) have just been referred to private mediation.
*The case is Truxel et al v. General Mills Sales, Inc 4:16-cv-04957 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.