“All natural,” “fresh,” and “no sugar added,” are all buzz words that may jump out at you when you’re scanning the grocery aisles, but some critics believe some of those claims are misleading.
“It’s really easy to design a food label that says one thing, but means another,” said Paulette Goddard, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University Marion Nestle. “It’s a huge problem because they’re willing to push the legal envelope as far as they can.”
“They” are food manufacturers and packagers, and Nestle says with the global economy, competition for your food dollar just keeps increasing.
As a result, she says sometimes food manufacturers make some questionable claims on their labels.
“The problem is very widespread. It runs from everything from chocolate and potato chips to baby food, vegetables and canned goods,” said Jay Nelkin, a Houston attorney. “I’d like to say to these companies, ‘I’d like to see you comply with the law.’”
In fact, Nelkin has filed a series of class-action lawsuits against some major food companies over their labeling. He believes the manufacturers named in the suits are violating rules the Food and Drug Administration laid out to the food industry governing food labels.
Some of the companies named in Nelkin’s suits include Del Monte, ConAgra, Kraft and Blue Diamond. He’s also filed suits against Mars, Hershey’s, and Gerber.
One of the dozens of products targeted is one version of Ocean Spray’s cranberry juice because of its “no sugar added” label on the front.
Nelkin claims the company continues to make false and deceptive claims because with 120 calories and 30 grams of sugar a serving, he says there should also be wording on the labeling that explains that the drink is not a low-calorie drink.
“People are not getting what they’re paying for,” said Nelkin.
A spokesperson for Ocean Spray told the KHOU 11 News I-Team they will vigorously defend this case.
“We believe these claims have no merit,” said Ocean Spray representative Cindy Taccini.
Bigelow tea is another company named in a Nelkin suit, targeted for its use of the term antioxidant on the front label.
In another suit, Nelkin calls into question the use of the term zero percent trans-fat on the front of a version of Lay’s potato chips.
And Nelkin also accuses Blue Diamond’s Almond Juice of using uncommon names to describe ingredients that are listed on the side panel.
“We take issue with the phrase evaporated cane juice where you have a product that’s not using the common name,” said Nelkin.
KHOU 11 News set up at Houston’s ground zero for health, Memorial Park and asked runners about the impression they got from the labeling on the product.
KHOU 11 News: “Do you know what evaporated cane juice is?”
Runner: “No. I don’t.”
So, what’s the answer?
“Sugar,” said food expert Nestle.
KHOU 11 News: “Why won’t the companies put sugar on there?”
Nestle: “Because people know that they’re not supposed to eat very much sugar.”
The Food and Drug Administration declined an on-camera interview, but in a written statement told KHOU 11 News that food labeling is not a widespread problem.
“I don’t know who you talked to, the people at the FDA who I talked to are quite well aware there is a widespread problem,” she said.
KHOU 11 News contacted all of the makers of the foods shown in the televised version of the news story.
Many of them told us they don’t comment on pending litigation.
The comments we did receive are listed below:
“Unfortunately, we cannot provide a comment on pending litigation. What I can say is that Kraft Foods supports the federal laws requiring food labels to be truthful and non-misleading. We stand behind our marketing claims and are committed to providing consumers with the information that they need in a clear, accurate and lawful manner so they may make informed decisions towards achieving a healthy lifestyle.”- Vicky Evans Stencel, Sr. Dir. For Health and Wellness Kraft Foods
“While we don’t comment on pending litigation, ConAgra Foods stand behind both the safety of our food and the accuracy of our labeling. We intend to defend this litigation.”- Lanie Friedman, ConAgra
“PAM no-stick spray is completely safe for all types of cooking, baking, and grilling, when used as directed. Our PAM no-stick sprays meet all FDA and USDA guidelines. When PAM is sprayed, a small, non-harmful amount of gas propels the spray and quickly dissipates, leaving the oil in the pan to prepare your food.”- Lanie Friedman, ConAgra
“We are confident that the labeling on our packaging complies with all regulatory requirements. Unfortunately, since this is an ongoing lawsuit, this is the only info I can provide at this time.”- Christopher Wyse, Communications// Frito-Lay & PepsiCo Americas Foods
“We wouldn’t have put it on there if we hadn’t listened to our FDA attorney.”- Cynthia Bigelow, President, Bigelow Tea
KHOU 11 News also reached out to the Blue Diamond company. A spokesperson told us they do not comment on lawsuits.