by Marion Nestle
Jan 19 2010

Cascadian Purely O’s: betrayal or business as usual?

Thanks to my NYU Medical Center colleague, Dr. Melissa Bender for the alert about the blogosphere fuss over Cascadian Farm Purely O’s cereals.  Apparently, Cascadian Farm, now owned by Big Food General Mills:

quietly changed the recipe for its “Purely O’s” cereal — previously an unsweetened favorite among children/toddlers – to include three times the sugar, as well as new fillers/sweeteners such as corn meal and tapioca syrup. They did this with no announcement on the label, taking advantage of those who trusted the brand for its previous simplicity. Loyal customers, particularly parents who had chosen this product because it was one of the few unsweetened options available, are outraged by this secretive yet major reformulation. Many discovered the change when their children spat out the cereal (myself included).

Her note sent me right to the largest of the three Whole Foods stores within walking distance of my Manhattan apartment.  Purely O’s: 3 grams of sugars, 3 grams of fiber, and 160 mg sodium per serving.

Oops: low-sugar, yes, but only medium-fiber and high in sodium.  Even with 0 grams of sugar, it’s not all that great.  Neither, for that matter, is its non-organic analog Cheerios (1 gram sugar, 3 grams fiber, 190 mg sodium).

At 3 grams of sugar per serving, Purely O’s is still lower in sugar than practically every other cereal in Whole Foods.  Whole Foods does not sell Big Food non-organics, so it does not carry Cheerios.  I had to look hard to find the only cereal lower in sugar than the reformulated Purely O’s: Arrowhead Mills Shredded Wheat, Bite Size (2 grams of sugar, 6 grams of fiber, and only 5 mg sodium).  That one, it seems to me, is a much better choice to begin with, pretty much in the same category as oatmeal (1 gram of sugar, 4 of fiber, and 0 mg sodium).  When it comes to cereal, more fiber the better.  Fiber is the point of breakfast cereal.

So I can’t get too upset about the reformulation of Purely O’s.  It’s simply a business decision, entirely to be expected from Big Food.  Cascadian Farms started out with “humble beginnings” as a maker of organic products, none of them cereals.  It was successful enough to be bought first by Small Planet Foods, and later by General Mills, which wanted to get in on the organic market.  Hence: organic Purely O’s.

General Mills is in business to sell cereal, and Purely O’s just didn’t make it past focus groups, as reported in the Boston Globe earlier this year.  General Mills must think there are too few of its deeply loyal customers to matter.  According to a business school case study, it has a history along these lines.  So chalk this one up to corporate imperatives.

Dr. Bender wrote to General Mills and received a reply that said as much:

Our goal is to give consumers quality products at a good value. Prior to introducing any product, extensive consumer testing is done. We conduct market research and product testing continuously to obtain consumer reaction to existing products and to changes being considered. Only when we feel confident that a product change will broaden its appeal will we alter a product’s formulation. We are sorry that you do not agree that the recent change in Cascadian Farm organic Purely O’s cereal was for the better.

If the bloggers are looking for a replacement, try oatmeal or those cute little bite-sized shredded wheat things.

  • Even though it’s not a huge amount of sugar…this still upsets me that they didn’t tell their customers! There just aren’t enough tasty, healthy cereals out there, which I guess is why so many super healthy people stick to oatmeal almost everyday, but that can get boring! I like Nature’s Path Heritage Flakes. They have little protein, but do have fiber and taste pretty good.

  • dsoleil

    Silk soy milk did much the same thing. Silk used to be all organic. Now, they have released a special “organic” Silk that is priced higher. All the other Silks are now non-organic. Instead, they now call them “natural.” I’m not sure what’s natural about food covered in pesticides. Chalk up another one to big business…

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  • Kat

    I like Barbara’s Organic Breakfast O’s. They cost an arm and a leg, but then again, what cereal doesn’t?
    I can’t compare them to the Purely O’s b/c I’ve never had those, but along with the aforementioned Nature’s Path, Barbara’s is one of my “go-to” cereal brands.

  • DennisP

    I’m just now reading David Kessler’s book End of Overeating…. It’s appalling how the food industry adds flavors and fats and salt and sugar to “foods” to make them appealing and irresistible. But their motive is profit, so the move by General Mills is not surprising; it could even have been predicted. I knew in general terms that “foods” were engineered, but until now I didn’t really understand how and to what extent, and how deliberately. I notice that the word nutrition has not yet been used in the book (I’m 1/3 the way thru it). Markets do work to promote innovation and variety, but with the ultimate effect of ruining the public health and creating a growing medical crisis. Gain control of health costs, President Obama? Not a chance in hell until you gain control of the food industry!

  • Since I’ve taken refined sugar out of my diet, I have found that I have to read labels ALL THE TIME. Too many times, brands that I thought I could trust (ex. Pamela’s lemon shortbread cookies) quit using natural sweeteners and went to refined sugar. Although an announcement of the change of ingredients would be very consumer-friendly, I feel personally responsible for every product I bring home and read the darn label every time.

  • Anthro

    Thanks for putting some perspective on this issue Marion. Parents who shop for “natural” foods should be well aware that Cascadian Farms has belonged to General Foods for some time now. If they are really so concerned about this, there are many alternatives, boxed and otherwise. I wonder if any of them own stock in General Foods?

    Perhaps Whole Foods could follow the lead of a co-op I shop at: They post large signs on any familiar product that changes ownership and immediately source a less “big food” alternative, often local or regional. When Odwalla Juice was taken over by Coke, they were able to find a similar product in the next state which became so popular that they soon eliminated the Odwalla altogether. When Horizon Dairy was involved in a bit of a scandal about treatment of the cows, they posted all relevant media and by popular demand, the product was pulled (later reinstated, I believe).

    I suggest these outraged people start or join a co-op where they can sit on the board and make decisions locally about what their store puts on its shelves.

  • The box of 365 Organic Whole Grain Os I have in my cupboard appears to only have 1g Sugar per serving.

  • I see this kind of business practice all the time. i’ll TWITTE about it.

  • annie

    see, i disagree about cereals for breakfast to begin with, let alone the sugar content of each. in our house cereal was treated as a dessert food only. to avoid the tired and sluggish feeling one feels by two pm, why not replace a grain-based sugar-laden breakfast with protein…. fiber is NOT the purpose of breakfast.. the purpose of breakfast is to break the fast from the long night of no food. sugar and it’s dopplegangers are not the solution, not to forget that children are wont to sprinkle sugar on their cereal as well…. poor choice of food which is supposed to sustain and nurture a growing body.. it takes two minutes to scramble up two eggs..

  • Bobby

    Sell out!
    Did anyone really expect anything different once big Agrofoodcorp took over? Really? C’mon I hate to seem cynical, but it’s their way of life. And shame, shame shame to the owners who sold their goodfood business to a giant agrofoodcorp! Sell Out! Cash In! Who cares?

    Actually, the (ex-)loyal customers might, but they won’t raise the stock price like wall street wants, will they.

  • Cathy Richards

    Once companies go public their obligation is to the shareholder (read: profit) first. Thus, if a small company is successful, they are likely to either be bought or pushed out of the market by a larger company — makes all the shareholders happy.

    Our good work in increasing the public’s interest in organic and local food businesses ultimately ends up helping the Big Guys who exploit the hard-earned reputations of small, dedicated natural food entrepreneurs.

    Can a food company meet its legal obligation to shareholders, while adhering to clearly stated goals to put local, organic, healthy objectives ahead of profit and stock prices? Would love to hear from some business/legal experts on this. Marion — any thoughts?

  • Subvert

    This has been out there a while, but I always like to share it when people are surprised at stuff like this. Mapping out of corporate ownership/aquisitions of food brands:

  • We must continue to read labels and stay on top of what’s going on in the food industry. Oatmeal may sound boring but you can make it in bulk 1x per week, and spice it up with cranberries, raisins, or gogi berries, agave syrup, almond butter and if you really want punch up the flavor add some butter and cream to it as a treat here and there. It is really good and you’ll never miss expensive packaged cereals! And you’ll know exactly what you and your children are eating.
    Laura Klein –

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  • nice one !!

    good information !!!

  • Anthro

    I definitely agree with both Annie and Laura about the pervasive idea that boxed cereal is the only thing to eat for breakfast. I have posted regularly about alternatives such as cooked cereal w/ fruit, eggs, pancakes (or leftover dinner) and tried to include easy and quick preparation tips. I’m happy to hear there is some support for this idea, but I fear that it mostly falls on deaf and frazzled ears. Young people are so heavily influenced by advertising that has drummed at them all of their lives–unless they’ve had some sort of epiphany about food and nutrition, they will be guided by this “training”. Sadly, this is true even at “health food” stores where I see young parents buying organic “coco puffs” so that their kids can be “like the others” I guess. I agree that fiber should not be the sole “point” of breakfast! WW (not multi-grain) toast or pancakes and sandwich in the lunch bag along with fruit and veggies will do that–breakfast should be well-balanced for a good start to the day.

    Related to this is an interesting article in the NY Times today about snacking–which has become an incessant and obligatory thing for parents and children alike.

  • Peanut

    Whole Foods has a terrific alternative to oatmeal, available in its bulk bins: organic 7-grain cereal. It contains cracked corn, cracked rye, cracked wheat, cracked barley, oats, flax seed, and millet. I add dried cranberries, raisins, and walnuts (I just found out that walnuts and flax seeds are good sources of omega-3’s), and stir in almond milk at the end. I based this on a dish I had at NYC’s Le Pain Quotidien, their harvest porridge. Delicious!

  • ugh. it seems as if the entire food industry is out to get us, but what they are really after is the Almighty Dollar, we are just collateral damage. just give me some fresh fruit and some cashews. oh wait, did mother earth change the formula of bananas? i hope not…

  • Tom Molessa

    Barbara’s O’s cereal has 0 grams of Sugar….if everyone switches to it then maybe General Mills will finally get the idea….or maybe they won’t care anyway…

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  • A wonderful roundup of the facts. In my experience (at least in traditional grocery stores), cereal companies do tell you when they’ve changed a product . . . just not directly. After all, it’s a great reason to put “improved!” or “Even Better!” on the box. 🙂

  • Annie, Marion wrote that fiber is the point of “breakfast cereal” (not of breakfast itself). It is very hard to get the recommended 35 grams of fiber per day unless you eat beans or high-fiber cereal. I am not a big cereal eater, so for me, the fiber is the reason I would eat cereal. I like Ezekiel 4:9, which is an organic, sprouted whole grain cereal with 0 sugar and 6g fiber. I like to add blueberries, walnuts or a banana. On non-cereal days, I like high fiber, organic sprouted whole grain toast with avocado, green smoothies, green juice, or home-made fruit smoothies with Berry Radical.

    Regarding changing formulas once a product is purchased by another brand: It would be nice to be able to trust recognised brands, but the bottom line for major corporations is pure profit, so being an avid label reader is our only chance at protecting ourselves.

  • Dave

    I think we’re experiencing the latest frontier in the “laundering” of health food. There was a time that the “organic” label meant something relatively strong about the circumstances under which the product was produced (typically small farms, genuine concern that the ingredients be natural and wholesome), and organic products were often the healthiest ones on the shelves. The most salient thing about the new Purely-O’s formula is not that it substantially more sugary; the biggest difference is that it tastes like sugary styrofoam. What was once a delicious, obviously natural product now looks and tastes like it was produced in mass scale using the cheapest ingredients possible. But supposedly it is “organic” and therefore healthy?

    Now that big companies are involved, this is all about gaming the standards (which are all enforced by third party auditors — many of whom are on probation for failing to do their jobs properly) so that they can stamp “organic” on the same-old-same-old. The real organic movement was nice while it lasted, but don’t count on that word having any meaning from now on.

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  • I really like soy milk. The taste really isn’t bad and it’s much better for you!