Though packaging for Fruit Roll-Ups and Fruit by the Foot snacks misleads consumers into believing they are made with real fruit, federal regulations allow for such labeling, even if it's not true, a federal judge has ruled in connection with a class-action lawsuit filed against General Mills.
"A reasonable consumer might make certain assumptions about the type and quantity of fruit in the Fruit Snacks based on the statement 'made with real fruit,' along with other statements prominently featured on the products' packaging," U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti wrote, Courthouse News Service reported.
"Additionally, the word 'strawberry' appears in large letters on the front, back, top, and bottom panels. Taken together, these statements might lead a reasonable consumer to believe that product is made with real strawberries, not pears from concentrate. The names 'Fruit Roll-Ups' and 'Fruit by the Foot,' along with the fanciful depiction of the products, which resemble fruit leather, may lead to further confusion about the Fruit Snacks' ingredients. After seeing these prominent aspects of the packaging, a reasonable consumer might be surprised to learn that a substantial portion of each serving of the Fruit Snacks consists of partially hydrogenated oil and sugars."
Popular with consumers
Anyone who thinks consumers will soon rise up and demand more truthful packaging may be disappointed. A ConsumerAffairs computerized sentiment analysis of about 28,000 postings on social media over the last year finds Fruit Roll-Ups riding high with a net positive sentiment of about 80%.
Judge Conti was ruling in a class action brought on behalf of a San Francisco-area mother by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in October 2011. It claims that General Mills incorrectly describes the ingredients in its fruit-flavored snacks and deceives people into thinking they are healthful.
“General Mills is basically dressing up a very cheap candy as if it were fruit and charging a premium for it,” said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. “General Mills is giving consumers the false impression that these products are somehow more wholesome, and charging more. It’s an elaborate hoax on parents who are trying to do right by their kids.”
Citing an example, the suit charges that Strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups are made from pears from concentrate, corn syrup, dried corn syrup, sugar, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, citric acid, acetylated monoglycerides, fruit pectin, dextrose, malic acid, Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), unspecified “natural flavor,” and Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Blue 1.
Even with the pear ingredient, the product provides little of the beneficial fiber or nutrients associated with real strawberries, the suit alleges. While labels tout the naturalness of the added flavorings, CSPI says that many of the ingredients are artificial by anyone’s definition, including the partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil and the acetylated monoglycerides.
Whatever's in the stuff, most of the 28,000 consumers whose comments we analyzed think it's pretty tasty.
Deceptive but legal
Conti agreed that the words "made with real fruit" was deceptive, but agreed with General Mills that its claims based on the labels "naturally flavored" and "fruit flavored" are preempted by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, since the regulation allows a product to be labeled as "fruit-flavored," even if it does not contain fruit.
"Thus, the regulation allows a producer to label a product as 'natural strawberry flavored,' even if that product contains no strawberries. While the regulation's logic is troubling, the court is bound to apply it," Conti wrote. "So long as that product 'contains natural flavor' which is 'derived from' the 'characterizing food ingredient,' it will not run afoul of the regulation."