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The fruit snack is a slippery little beast. Wander into your local natural food store, and you might find a packaged fruit snack with one ingredient: fruit. Look in the package, and you'll see something that looks like a piece of dried fruit flesh. But just about everyplace else, the items being sold as fruit snacks have a much more tenuous relation to the stuff of apples, strawberries, and mangos. These ubiquitous and popular snack items are molded sweet morsels, soft and a little chewy. They are called fruit snacks because they are made from fruit. Sort of.
It's a huge category: Fruit snacks are on the product lineup of breakfast behemoths like General Mills and Kellogg's, fruit brands like Mott's and Welch's, and specialty companies with names that promise healthier processed food like Florida's Naturals and Annie's Organics. Based on my extensive field testing, I am happy to report that most of these fruit snacks are quite yummy. But they are also almost indistinguishable from soft gummy candies.
Note, however, that the word candy is never, ever used to describe this product. The adherence to this definitive nomenclature on the part of producers and consumers alike is what we call "pulling a fast one." What distinguishes the fruit snack from other chewy candies is the substitution of sugars derived from cane, beet, or corn with sugars derived from fruit. Fruit juices, purees, and fruit pectins enhance the fruit content boasted on the package of many brands. But even if all the ingredients started out as fruit, what the fruit snack primarily delivers is sugar. Sugar from fruit, sugar from cane, sugar from corn, no matter: sugar is sugar.
Packages plastered with fruit bouquets and boasting fruit juices and purees give this category an aura of virtue that other candies can only envy. The problem is that the wholesome fruit goodness of fruit snacks is wholly imaginary. Fruit snacks are not fruit. They're not better than candy. They are candy.
So I want to be first in line to cheer for the plaintiff in the latest salvo in the food wars: a class-action suit against General Mills targeting its line of Betty Crocker-branded fruit snack products, including Fruit Roll Ups, Fruit by the Foot, Fruit Gushers, and Fruit Shapes.
The complaint (PDF), filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California on October 14, alleges that General Mills "is conveying an overall message of a healthful snack product to parents when, in fact, the products contain dangerous, non-nutritious, unhealthy partially hydrogenated oil, large amounts of sugar, and potentially harmful artificial dyes." The suit accuses General Mills of using misleading packaging and marketing in order to "deceptively convey the message that its products are nutritious and healthful."
The specific Fruit Snacks named in this complaint are a pretty easy target, at least in the court of public opinion. One wonders what convoluted reasoning lawyers might deploy to mount a defense of a product like Strawberry Fruit Roll-Up, whose ingredients list omits strawberries entirely, and rapidly devolves from "Pears from Concentrate" (aka sugar) to "Corn Syrup, Dried Corn Syrup, Sugar, Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil, Citric Acid, Acetylated Monoglycerides, Fruit Pectin, Dextrose, Malic Acid, Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), Natural Flavor, Color (red 40, yellows 5 & 6, blue 1)."
But Fruit Snacks are really the tip of a powerful wedge. Behind this lawsuit is the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the biggest consumer advocacy group for all matters nutritional. The complaint sets the groundwork for a wider argument with much higher stakes: When junky food promotes selective nutritional claims like "low fat," "gluten free," "high fiber," or "100% of the daily allowance on Vitamin C," the message is that the food is healthful and nutritious. Even if the product claims taken singly are true, the lawsuit aims to prove that the packaging and marketing is essentially deceptive: candy dressed up and sold as fruit. Read this suit more broadly and it is clear that CSPI is going after the marketing practices of the entire packaged food industry.
These days, it's hard to find a product in the grocery store that doesn't boast some nutritional benefit. But as processed food critics have been saying for a long time, all that virtue paraded on the front of the package is given the lie by the fine print on the "Nutrition Facts" label. A recent study by the Prevention Institute looked at a basket of processed foods featuring front-of-package "healthy" labeling. Prognosis: negative. Forty-nine out of 58 of the foods targeted in the study failed to live up to at least one of the criteria for healthy food established in the federal government's "Dietary Guidelines for Americans." We're talking Campbell's Tomato Soup, Skippy Super Chunk Peanut Butter, Rice Krispies. And we're also talking added sugar, refined grains, sodium like a salt lick. If Fruit Snacks' failure to disclose its dangerous and unwholesome side is fraudulent, as CSPI alleges, then all those boxed, bagged, and frozen foods that allude to their healthy virtues are engaged in the same fraud.
Is this one CSPI and the forces of food goodness can win? It's definitely not a slam-dunk. In June 2010 a version of this suit was filed in New York, and then withdrawn after only one month. California's stronger consumer protection laws may make it a more favorable venue. On the other hand, General Mills is a formidable opponent. Not to mention that the legal standards for proving that marketing is misleading or deceptive may be quite different from my own. But CSPI has been in the non-business of consumer advocacy since 1971, and takes the long view. Michael Jacobson, the executive director of CSPI, has been a persistent, visible, and effective critic of the food industry for four decades. He is not afraid to be called "food nanny" and worse. CSPI has an impressive record of success, from improved nutrition labeling to the banning of sugary soft drinks from school lunchrooms. This suit may fail. But CSPI doesn't have shareholders, doesn't worry about being re-elected. CSPI can afford to take the long view. Fruit Snacks is just the beginning.