‘Wasteful’ lawsuits reveal hidden deceptions behind ‘wholesome’ food claims

Posted by
November 9, 2012

The total disconnect between claims made on food product labels and the actual nature of the products themselves has once again ended up in court, the latest action being against two J.M. Smucker products –  the additive-filled frozen peanut butter and jelly item called Uncrustables, and the vegetable shortening Crisco (which was actually the very first product to make use of the hydrogenation process over a century ago).

While the magic wand of marketing can add pretty pictures and cool buzz words such as “wholesome” and “natural,” it can’t change a product into something it’s not, or keep the lawsuits from being filed.

Smucker’s recently asked a California judge to dismiss the most recent action – the third against the company on similar charges –  hanging its trans-fat hat on a Food and Drug Administration  loophole which allows the presence of the artery-clogging substance in both products to be listed as “0” if there is less than 0.5g of trans-fats per serving.

Quoted in a trade publication as calling the actions a “trilogy of trans-fats lawsuits” that force “food manufactures to undergo wasteful, expensive and time-consuming litigation that cannot and will not benefit the public,” the company claims it is in “complete compliance” with all labeling requirements.

Uncrustables, a frozen ready-made peanut butter and jelly sandwich, while marketed as being “wholesome” and having a “great homemade taste,” is a virtual wellspring of additives including dough conditioners, trans-fats and high fructose corn syrup. The plaintiffs in the current action, California consumers Alice Vinson and Lucina Caldera, claim that the Uncrustables marketing language was “part of an intentional campaign to deceptively market Uncrustables as healthful and nutritionally comparable to homemade PB&J,” and that the HFCS they contain “can cause diabetes (and) tooth decay.”

Explanation of a loophole’s exploitation

Smucker’s Crisco Original and Butter Flavor shortening products, while advertised as having “50% less saturated fat than butter and 0g of trans-fats per serving,” are both made from fully hydrogenated palm oil and partially hydrogenated palm and soybean oil, sources of trans-fats that have apparently sneaked in under the 0.5g labeling loophole. The plaintiff’s state that comparing the saturated fat of butter to the product implies “that Crisco is a more healthful alternative to butter because of its lower saturated fat content,” and that the “all vegetable” claim is also misleading as the shortening is so highly processed it has been rendered an “artificial non-vegetable product…” by the time it reaches the consumer.

While “trans-fat free” and “no MSG” are widely misused in the food world, nothing seems to come close to the ultra popular “natural.” With no definitive guidance from the FDA  as to the meaning of the term, food manufactures slap it on products with abandon.

Author and blogger Bruce Bradley, a 15-year veteran of the food product marketing world, says, “There is no FDA definition of ‘Natural,’ and in that vacuum, processed food companies have filled the void with their own, self-serving interpretations.”

As an example, Bradley cites high fructose corn syrup, which he describes as “anything but natural…the result of an extraordinarily intensive process involving a series of enzymatic and chemical reactions. In fact, as one pro-HFCS group states, ‘the corn undergoes so much processing, and the products of the processes are so removed from corn that there is no detectable corn DNA present in HFCS.’”

As the litigation lingers on, it will hopefully have the side effect of informing all those still clueless shoppers out there that what they see advertised about a food may bear little or no relationship to what they actually get – and in that way, can and will “benefit the public” after all.