If a snack box is decorated with pictures of fruit, says its contents are made with real fruit, but only has a little bit of actual fruit inside, can it call itself a fruit snack?
That is the heart of a case now before a federal court in New York, in a class action lawsuit brought by parents who say that they bought Welch’s Fruit Snacks because they thought it was a healthy option based on the company’s fruit- and nutrition-filled messaging both on the box and elsewhere.
The nearly 20 products targeted by the suit come in boxes laden with pictures of colorful, fresh fruit, phrases like “Made with REAL Fruit,” “100% Vitamin C” and “fat-free.” One Welch’s press release cited by the suit says these nutritional qualities make it a “better alternative to lots of other snacks.”
But the suit says that the fruit-flavored snacks are far from nutritious. Although the packages list fruit purees, juices and concentrates as the first ingredients, the next two ingredients listed are often added sweeteners. On average, sugar makes up 40 to more than 50% of each serving, depending on the flavor. This, argues the suit, is a violation of New York, California and federal laws.
Welch’s referred Quartz to the licensed manufacturer of the fruit snacks, Promotion in Motion, which stands by the products and packaging. “It is a fact that fruit, whether in the form of juices or more recently purees, has always been the first ingredient in Welch’s Fruit Snacks,” Promotion in Motion told Quartz in a statement. “Our labeling is truthful and gives consumers the information they need to make informed decisions.” Promotion in Motion also notes that the snacks meet FDA regulations.
Marion Nestle, professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, told Quartz that all the added sugar is the real problem. “Yikes,” she wrote in an email after reviewing the nutrition facts for the “Mixed Fruit” flavor (on the right). “Sugar, sugar, and more sugar plus artificial flavors and colors. I wouldn’t touch it. This has nothing whatsoever to do with fruit.”
The name, Welch’s Fruit Snacks, may also be a problem. ”Unlike many labeling cases,” Ted Craig, a class action defense attorney at Florida law firm Gray Robinson told Quartz, “this case presents a challenge for Welch’s because they used the word ‘fruit’ in the name of the product.” According to FDA regulations, you cannot use the common name of a food, for example fruit, if the product is not actually that food, unless you also display the actual percentage of that food in the product (which the packaging does not). The lawsuit alleges that the packaging also runs afoul of New York and California laws.
The lawsuit seeks a number of kinds of relief, including damages for the class members, but the primary goal, says Steve Gardner, one of the attorneys bringing the claims, “is to stop these abusive practices.” He wants Welch’s to stop promoting the products like they have significant amounts of actual fruit in them, he told Quartz. “Our goal is to find a way to let people (parents in particular) know what they are buying.”