Parents befuddled by the nutrition claims on baby and kid food labels often feel powerless. Not Nakia Williams and Rita Tabiu.
When they found the nutrition in Gerber Graduates Juice Snacks, sold for toddlers, failed to live up to the claims made on the food packaging, they took their concerns to court with the help of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The California attorney general's office filed papers in support of the lawsuit, as well.
Parents of toddlers, they argued that the use of the phrase "made with real fruit juice and other all natural ingredients" next to images of oranges, peaches, strawberries and cherries would deceive consumers, leading them to assume that the juices of those fruits were major ingredients in the snack. In fact, only white grape fruit juice concentrate is on the ingredient list, and it falls behind corn syrup and sugar. For that reason, they also challenged the company's use of the word "snack" (instead of "treat," "sweet" or "candy").
Since the suit was filed, Gerber has changed the packaging — though, according to court documents, the company did not do so in reaction to the complaint. Gerber removed the word "nutritious" in reference to its Gerber Graduates food line, removed the "all natural ingredients" claim, and changed the product's name to "Fruit Juice Treats."
A U.S. appeals court on Dec. 22 reinstated the case, after a lower court had tossed it out at Gerber's request. The decision stated that consumers should not be "expected to look beyond misleading representations on the front of the box to discover the truth from the ingredient list in small print on the side of the box. Instead, reasonable consumers expect that the ingredient list contains more detailed information about the product that confirms other representations on the packaging."
"The Court's decision is a warning to all companies that try to make junk food look healthy by depicting nutritious fruits, vegetables, and whole grains on the labels of sugary, high-calorie snacks," said Bruce Silverglade, CSPI director of legal affairs.
The case hasn't been decided. The court has only ruled that it should be heard, based on its finding that the claim has merit:
"Here, there are a number of features of the packaging Gerber used for its Fruit Juice Snacks product which could likely deceive a reasonable consumer. The [original] product is called 'fruit juice snacks' and the packaging pictures a number of different fruits, potentially suggesting (falsely) that those fruits or their juices are contained in the product. Further, the statement that Fruit Juice Snacks was 'made with fruit juice and other all natural ingredients' could easily be interpreted by consumers as a claim that all the ingredients in the product were natural, which appears to be false. And finally, the claim that Snacks is 'just one of a variety of nutritious Gerber Graduates foods and juices that have been specifically designed to help toddlers grow up strong and healthy' adds to the potential deception."
Regardless of the outcome, the case stands as a simple reminder to parents: If you want nutritious snacks for your children, there's rarely a better choice than real fruits and vegetables — not those depicted on the boxes of processed foods.
While no parents should be absolved of the responsibility of knowing what ingredients are in the foods served to their children, they ought to be able to make choices in the grocery store based on information that is truthful and straightforward. With the growing obesity epidemic costing the nation direly in health care services, this is a small but important battle in the effort to improve the health of the nation's children — and by extension, reduce the burden of health care costs.
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