Ken Bennett, an avid hiker and recreational hockey player, wanted a cereal packed with protein. So last month, he picked up Kellogg’s Vector. Bold lettering on the box declares that it has “high protein” — more specifically, that it “provides 13 g of protein” per serving.
“[It’s] actually pretty high for a breakfast cereal. That’s why I bought it,” said Bennett, who lives in Chilliwack, B.C.
He felt good about his choice — until he noticed the fine print on the box one morning during breakfast.
The fine print reveals that a serving of Vector flakes alone contains just 5.6 grams of protein. The rest of the advertised 13 grams comes from the recommended 200 millilitres of skim milk to be added to the flakes.
“I felt tricked. I felt duped,” said Bennett. “I took it for face value that these breakfast cereal flakes had 13 grams of protein.”
As Canadians grapple with rising grocery prices, they’re becoming more concerned about food marketing tactics they believe are deceptive — including “shrinkflation” (when companies reduce the weight of a food product, but not the price or packaging), “skimpflation” (when they use cheaper ingredients but keep the price the same), and bold claims that gloss over key details.
“It really offends consumers,” said Mary L’Abbé, a nutritional sciences professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.
“They really feel like they’re being … cheated out of their hard-earned dollars.”
A recent report from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity found that out of 2,670 Canadians surveyed in July, 62 per cent had concerns about misleading food labels and marketing.
CBC News has heard from several Canadians who had gripes about cereal packaging, such as taller boxes containing less cereal, and bold statements on box labels that may not match up with what’s inside.
Different rules for ‘meal replacement’
Canadian regulations state that food labels and advertising can’t be misleading.
In Vector’s case, Health Canada spokesperson André Gagnon said Kellogg can add milk to the protein count, because the product isn’t a cereal. Instead, Vector is a “meal replacement” — a product that meets specific nutrition criteria that may require added milk.
Bennett said he thought Vector was a cereal because he bought it in the cereal aisle. He also didn’t notice the words “meal replacement” on the bottom corner of the box.
“I don’t know what it means by a meal replacement,” he said. “They shouldn’t be able to do that.”
L’Abbé agrees. She says although Vector’s label complies with regulations, it’s still misleading to many shoppers who believe the product is a cereal.
“It’s not sold grouped in the supermarket with all these other nutritional meal replacements,” she said. “It’s in with the breakfast cereals.”
U.S.-based WK Kellogg Co. said Vector’s label is not only compliant, but voluntarily discloses on the box the protein count without added milk.
No blueberries in ‘blueberry’ cereal
Don Bajom of Winnipeg recently bought a box of Kellogg’s Mini-Wheats Blueberry because he believed it contained blueberries. After all, the berry is in the cereal’s name and in pictures on the box.
But he thought the cereal didn’t taste quite right, so he checked the ingredients. That’s when he discovered that it contains no blueberries — dried or in any other form.
“I feel like I was lied to,” he told CBC News in a written statement. “I feel like this company does not care about its customers.”
According to Canadian regulations, if a cereal shows a real food on the box that is simulated in the product with flavouring, it must be made clear on the packaging.
Kellogg Co. said Mini-Wheats Blueberry is compliant, because the front of the box states “natural and artificial flavour,” and the nutrition label lists all the ingredients.
But L’Abbé still takes issue with the cereal’s packaging, saying she believes the “natural and artificial flavour” statement — near the bottom corner of the box — doesn’t make clear that the cereal contains no blueberries.
“That product doesn’t say ‘blueberry-flavoured Mini-Wheats,’ it just says, ‘blueberry Mini-Wheats,'” she said. “This one I think is absolutely, terribly misleading to the consumer.”
L’Abbé says the federal government needs to do more to help shoppers read food labels with a critical eye.
“I don’t think they’ve thought enough about how important these labels are to consumers,” she said.
Andréa Daigle, spokesperson with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, told CBC News it’s heading up an investigation into grocery retail practices that hurt Canadians.
The department currently has a call out for proposals from consumer groups.
Boston-based consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky, who tracks shrinkflation on his website, Consumer World, said the best safeguard for shoppers is to educate themselves.
“We have to become aware of the different tricks and ploys that manufacturers use,” he said. “We can outsmart them.”