Parents Sue Fruit Snack Company For Advertising Its Candy As A Healthy Choice

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For years, Welch’s Food, Inc., the makers of Welch’s Fruit Snacks, said their offerings contained real fruit. A class action lawsuit, however, disagrees. The two women leading the legal dispute say pictures of fresh fruit and catch phrases on the packaging deceived health-conscious parents who purchased the fruit snacks.

Though Welch’s Food designates fruit purees, juices, and concentrate as the primary ingredients of its products, the lawsuit says that sugar and food coloring accounts for at least 40 percent of each serving of its fruit snacks. Plaintiffs Aliza Atik and Winnie Lau argue this constitutes misleading advertising that violates New York, California, and federal laws.

“Welch Foods has deceived shoppers by engaging in a deceptive marketing campaign to convince consumers that Welch’s Fruit Snacks contained significant amounts of the actual fruits shown in the marketing and on the labeling of the products, were nutritious and healthful to consume, and were more healthful than similar products,” Atik and Lau said in a statement.

This lawsuit comes three years after the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a D.C.-based consumer advocacy group, threatened legal action against Promotion in Motion, the company that distributes Welch’s snack products, for “false claims” about the snacks’ health benefits. Another group brought a similar complaint before a California court, claiming Welch Foods inaccurately labeled its juice and spread products as “natural” and “no sugar added.”

Since litigation around the fruit labeling started, Welch Food representatives have gone on the offensive, telling online news site Quartz that its labels meet Food and Drug Administration guidelines.

However, that may not be the case. The FDA says claims related to food products’ health benefits must be accompanied by nutritional labeling, ingredients list, name and address of distributor, along with additional information that supports the assertion. Some law scholars contend that Welch’s Food doesn’t meet that criterion.

A point of contention is the use of “fruit” on the front of the packaging without disclosure about how much of the food actually contains that ingredient.

“If they called it junky happy joy chewy, that would be fine,” Stephen Gardner, the attorney for the plaintiffs, told Fortune. “But they’re marketing this to people so they choose to buy it as an alternative to fruit. It’s an alternative to M&Ms — not to use M&Ms pejoratively. I love M&Ms.”

Research suggests that misleading food packaging, particularly labels touting a product’s health benefits, influence consumer habits. For instance, a study conducted at the University of Houston last year showed that healthy buzzwords — like “gluten free,” “organic,” “natural,” whole grain,” and “antioxidant” — distract from the actual nutritional information and help convince shoppers that products are healthier than is true. Another study found that when chocolate is labeled “fair trade” — a reference to ethical business practices, not nutritional quality — people assume it’s healthier. The same holds true for products with green labels, according to Cornell University researchers.

Consumer advocacy groups also say this evidence reaffirms the need for easy-to-read nutrition labels, which 42 percent of working-age adults and 57 percent of older people rely on when they’re shopping. Such information, when presented clearly and accurately, can potentially debunk misleading advertisements on the front of food packaging.

The FDA recently submitted a proposed label design to make nutrition information easier to read. However, critics say it falls short of the ideal model, partly because of a reliance on complex jargon, especially when it comes to information about added sugar. For now, it remains to be seen whether those issues will be resolved.

Plaintiffs in the class action suit against Welch’s, however, hope to see the company cease its promotion of its products as fruit. “Our goal is to find a way to let people (parents in particular) know what they are buying,” Gardner told Quartz.

Welch’s Food isn’t the only company to receive suffer repercussions for allegedly misrepresenting the nutritional value of its products.

Earlier this month, food producer Kashi reached a $3.99 million settlement in a class action suit involving its use of the “all natural” label for its genetically modified products. ConAgra Foods, the producer of Chef Boyardee, also had to explain its use of the “preservative-free” label for pizza and pasta that contains citric acid. Earlier this year, a coalition of dietitians groups shifted focused on Kraft Food Groups, which they said falsely marketed its cheese product as authentic when each slide contained less than 51 percent of unadulterated cheese.