I am always happy to see my friends and family making an effort to buy healthier products at the grocery store (even more excited when they cook from scratch with them), but unless you are particularly interested in health and nutrition, you probably do not have the background or experience to interpret some of the health and nutrition claims on many processed food packagings – that is why consumer protection groups often address what they consider to be misleading advertisements and packaging. To be sure, there is a component of personal responsibility that cannot be ignored, the consumer cannot be protected from itself entirely, he or she should make a reasonable effort to police his or her own purchasing decisions, but I believe that expectation should be in the context of reasonably clear and fair information with which to make those purchasing decisions. I doubt anyone is under the illusion that Krispi Cream Donuts are healthy or contain any nutrtious ingredients, but they taste good to many people and many people buy them, knowing full well what they are eating.
But as the American consumer has become more health conscious, companies sometimes use advertising in ways that are misleading. Not everyone agrees with that assessment, and there is disagreement about the degree to which certain packaging claims are deceptive.
The Federal Trade Commission recently ruled that advertisements from juice maker POM Wonderful contained health claims that were misleading and unsubstantiated. This was not the first confrontation between the regulator and the company. In 2010, the FTC sued POM Wonderful for claiming that its drinks helped prevent heart disease and cancer.
The POM case is just one example of a slew of recent confrontations companies have had with regulators, customers and advocacy groups for false advertising and misleading labeling. Foods labelled as healthy or “all-natural” have been targeted most frequently. Other products at issue have ranged from shoes to cars. Based on recent reports, 24/7 Wall St. has reviewed the most misleading product claims.
Other government agencies, in addition to the FTC, have taken action against companies to protect consumers from misleading advertising. Last November, the Environmental Protection Agency publicly said that Hyundai and Kia, sister South Korean automakers, misrepresented the fuel efficiency of several of their models and required the company to change its advertising.
The majority of the cases on this list are related to food or drink products claiming to have benefits they do not have or, at the very least, that the company does not have the evidence to support. Diamond Foods, for one, was sued after it claimed its walnuts have heart benefits without having supporting evidence. General Mills’ Fruit Roll-Ups had pictures of strawberries and other fruits on the box, yet the product is made with pear concentrate, and with no strawberries of any kind.
One of the public interest groups that has been at the forefront of suits related to food or drink and health is consumer advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The CSPI has been involved in several of the lawsuits on this list.
In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Stephen Gardner, the Director of Litigation at CSPI, explained that there has been a major uptick in actions over food and beverage products and their health claims. Gardner explained that a major reason for this increase is a notable lack of clarity in FTC language on some kinds of food labeling. This extends to whether or not a company can label its product as “all-natural,” as well as claims about the healthiness of products.
“Eight years ago” Gardner noted, “there were, four, possibly three private lawsuits. When we showed this was a viable consumer lawsuit, many, many more people got involved.” Gardner added that this growth has been exponential.
Last year, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to volunteer for CSPI and help draft a section of a reply brief submitted by the plaintiff in the General Mills law suit. The law suit ended in a settlement, with General Mills agreeing to packaging changes starting in 2014.
General Mills agreed to improve its labeling for Strawberry Naturally Flavored Fruit Roll-Ups, an agreement that resolved a lawsuit brought against the company by a consumer who represented CSPI. Strawberry Naturally Flavored Fruit Roll-Ups contain no strawberries, but are made with pear concentrate, corn syrup, dried corn syrup, sugar, partially hydrogentated cottonseed oil, and 2% or less of various natural and artificial flavors. Based on the settlement, as long as the product contains no strawberries, the new labels will not depict images of strawberries. And, so long as the product’s label carries the claim “Made with Real Fruit,” such claims will be required to include the actual percentage of fruit in the product. Both of these changes will take effect in 2014. It was a real honor to work with Steve Gardener and Amanda Howell in contributing to the brief.
“By stating the actual percentage of fruit in the product, these labels will be less likely to lead consumers to believe that the product is all or mostly fruit,” said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. “A more accurate name for the product would be Pear Naturally Flavored Fruit Roll-Ups, since pear is present and strawberry is absent. But the removal of pictures of strawberries is a step in the right direction. We are pleased to have worked cooperatively with General Mills to reach this agreement.”
ps. Homemade Fruit Roll-Ups are super easy and far more nutritious
check out this recipe from Two Peas and Their Pod, it requires only two ingredients
In the alternative, there are a number of brands making fruit leather with more nutritious ingredients than most conventional brands
Stretch Island Fruit Company sells theirs with no sugar added and is available for only $.87 per ounce on Amazon.com (compared to $.43 per ounce for the General Mills variety that contains Pears From Concentrate, Corn Syrup, Dried Corn Syrup, Sugar, Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Pectin, Distilled Monoglycerides, Malic Acid, Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid), Acetylated Mono And Diglycerides, Natural Flavor, Color (Red 40, Yellows 5&6, Blue 1)