By Jon Hood

November 9, 2009
Kellogg is facing a class action suit over its claim that Cocoa Krispies help boost children's immunity to illness. The suit is the latest in a series involving allegedly dubious claims about everyday food products, particularly cereals.

The suit, filed in federal court in California, says that Kellogg makes false and misleading statements about the chocolatey, sweetened rice cereal. Kellogg claims that eating just three-fourths of a cup of Cocoa Krispies will boost a family's immunity to illness. The company also boasts via TV ads, the internet, and the cereal box itself that the cereal provides 25 percent of of needed antioxidants and nutrients, and is an excellent source of vitamins A, B, C, and E.

The class counters that Kellogg has no scientific basis for its claim that eating Cocoa Krispies will help fight illness or otherwise promote good health. It says that Kellogg's sole motive is to attract consumers looking for functional foods those that provide some health benefit besides merely providing nutrition. Because Kellogg's claims are not backed up by clinical trials or other reliable evidence, the plaintiffs say the company has prioritized profits ahead of its customers.

The suit essentially accuses Kellogg of throwing a couple of antioxidants into Cocoa Krispies so it can then claim that the cereal is providing indispensable nutrients. The plaintiffs also say that any possible benefits are likely canceled out by the cereal's sugar, chocolate, high-fructose corn syrup and/or partially-hydrogenated oils. Indeed, the plaintiffs suggest, these ingredients may actually negatively affect consumers' health.

Cocoa Krispies aren't likely the first thing that come to mind when parents think of a healthy cereal. Introduced in 1958, the product is basically standard Rice Krispies injected with chocolate. The cereal is perhaps best known for its ability to rapidly turn standard-issue milk into chocolate milk. And, even if it does provide some health benefit, the cereal is a full 40 percent sugar by weight. One serving three-fourths of a cup contains 10.5 grams of sugar, and less than a gram of fiber.

By contrast, a one-cup serving of Wheaties provides only 4.2 grams of sugar and a full three grams of fiber. Frosted Mini Wheats, another Kellogg product, may be sugar laden at nearly 12 grams per serving, but they also provide almost six grams of fiber 25 percent of the daily requirement.

The plaintiffs say that Kellogg's immune-boosting claim is particularly egregious in light of the current H1N1 ('swine') flu epidemic in California and the rest of the nation. They are seeking an injunction and restitution for cereal purchased in reliance on Kellogg's claims.

The class isn't alone in crying foul over Kellogg's campaign. Last week, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera wrote a letter to the company's CEO, asking for proof of Kellogg's claims. A spokesman for Herrera told that the content and prominence of Kellogg's claims is a significant departure from normal marketing-speak.

The suit comes on the heels of a similar action filed against General Mills regarding its claim that eating Cheerios reduces cholesterol and thus helps fight heart disease. There, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) warned General Mills that it was promoting Cheerios as if the cereal were a drug, intended for use in the prevention, mitigation, and treatment of disease. That case is pending in a New Jersey federal court.