Did you hear about the folks out in California who filed suit against a company that makes spicy bean dip and guacamole flavored dip, alleging false advertising? (Henderson v. Gruma Corp.)
Apparently, these consumers took issue with some (actually, it seems as though it might be almost all) of the claims on the product label.
Without boring everyone (except lawyers) to death with a whole lot of legal detail, here are a few things I learned (or was reminded of) from the court’s preliminary rulings. If you’re a dedicated label-reader as I am, or you’re just interested in serving yourself and your family the best, healthiest, highest-quality food possible, keep these things in mind:
The court tossed out the claims related to the use of the phrase “Authentic Tradition,” because the judge said that was puffery, which is allowable. In other words, it’s one of those commonly-used advertising phrases that sound good but are basically meaningless. There are plenty of others… “wholesome,” for instance. Ponder that next time somebody claims sugar coated sugar pellets are a “wholesome” part of a nutritious breakfast.
The judge also said it was okay for the dip to say it was made “with garden vegetables,” because it contained avocado powder, dehydrated onion, garlic powder, and bell pepper, which were things that could be grown in a garden. Gotta keep in mind, being “made with” something isn’t the same as being made entirely (or even mostly) from something. Kinda like when “cheese food products” that are mostly vegetable oil claim they’re made with real dairy.
You really have to look at the ingredient list. Food producers are required to report the ingredients in order by quantity. So if the label prominently proclaims the product is “made with” something, but you don’t see that item until way down toward the bottom of the list of ingredients, you may want to take all the label claims with the proverbial grain of salt.
(As an aside: seriously? The judge knows somebody who can grow avocado powder, garlic powder and dehydrated onion in a garden? Maybe they should consider watering more frequently…)
So, apparently, avocado powder can be a vegetable. Go figure.
Anyway, the people who brought the lawsuit also had a problem with the dip’s claim it contained zero grams of trans fats. We all know trans fats are bad, right? And if a food product says it has zero grams, that means it doesn’t have any of those nasty trans fats, right? So the judge slapped the food company down hard on this count, right?
Actually, no, he didn’t.
Foods can still have some tiny quantities of trans fats and still legally report them as zero grams on the nutrition label. As long as the quantity is less than half a gram, so it would round down to zero, they can say zero grams and still be telling the truth. Same thing for cholesterol. And a lot of other things, for that matter. You have to read the ingredient list, looking for things like partially-hydrogenated oils. If you see these, there’s some trans fat in that food, no matter what the nutrition label says.
On the other hand, the court said there could be a problem with the defendant’s use of the phrase “all natural,” because the product allegedly contains artificial trans fats.
Another thing the judge agreed might be misleading and should be decided in a trial: the word guacamole was in a font two sizes larger than the phrase “flavored dip.” This could make somebody who isn’t reading closely think the dip was actually real guacamole, rather than some vaguely-guacamole-flavored dip “food product.” See, it’s kind of like those “juice drinks” that contain almost no juice. You can only call something juice if it’s really made of juice (not just made with juice). And you can only call something guacamole if it’s actually made primarily of avocado.
In this case, they could only call it “guacamole flavored dip” because it contained only about 2% avocado powder (and no real, unpowdered avocado at all). But the way they presented it on the label, it was possible somebody could see the big word “guacamole” and overlook the “flavored dip” part. Guacamole can be a pretty decent food, nutritionally-speaking. “Guacamole flavored dip,” probably not so much.
So, what can we learned from this?
Glancing over the nutrition breakdown isn’t enough. You need to read the ingredient list, too. If the desirable ingredients are way down at the bottom of the list, or you see ingredients you don’t want, you might want to look elsewhere. (Or, better yet, make it yourself from fresh.)
It pays to read the label carefully to make sure you’re getting what you think you’re buying, and not some pale imitation. Cheese instead of “cheese flavored food product.” Juice instead of “juice drink.” And, yes, guacamole instead of “guacamole flavored dip.”
Some “puffery” is allowed. Don’t let yourself be mislead by nice-sounding but meaningless claims, like “authentic,” “wholesome,” or “home-style.”
Happy shopping, y’all!