What does it mean for a food to be labeled “whole grain”? Even if there is no official standard for that term, do you expect that a whole grain version of a product would be healthier than the original?
The Kellogg Company is being sued for selling a “Whole Grain” version of its popular Cheez-It crackers that the plaintiffs allege doesn’t live up to the implications of the name and is nutritionally no different than other versions of Cheez-Its.
The complaint [PDF], filed this morning in federal court by people who purchased Cheez-It crackers in New York and California, alleges that calling these crackers “Whole Grain” is “false and misleading, because the primary ingredient in Cheez-It Whole Grain crackers is enriched white flour.”
Unlike whole wheat flour, which contains nutrients and high amounts of fiber, the plaintiffs contend that enriched white flour is “refined so that only the endosperm of the wheat remains, which is mostly starch.”
The Whole Grain Cheez-Its do contain whole wheat flour, though it is farther down the list of ingredients than the white flour. Additionally, a comparison of the nutritional information for Whole Grain and Original Cheez-Its shows the two products have identical stats for calories, fat, saturated fats, protein, and total carbs. The use of some whole wheat flour in the Whole Grain version does appear to push up the dietary fiber figure from “less and 1g” to a full 1g.
The plaintiffs argue that consumers are likely to be misled by a “whole grain” cracker that is nutritionally not any different than the original, especially when competing products, like Wheat Thins Whole Grain, Triscuits and others use either 100% whole wheat or predominantly whole wheat flour.
“Plaintiffs would not have purchased or paid more for Cheez-It Whole Grain crackers had they known the product contains more refined grain than whole grain,” reads the complaint.
The complaint takes issue with Cheez-It’s small print statements that these “Whole Grain” products contain either 5 grams or 8 grams of whole grain per serving, noting that “Nothing else on the box provides any context for how much 5 or 8 grams of whole grain is, in relationship to the much larger amount of refined grain.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines recommend that anyone consuming at least 2,000 calories a day should eat at least 3 ounce-equivalents of whole grains daily, which is around 50g.
Plaintiffs accuse Michigan-based Kellogg of breaking that state’s laws against unjust enrichment and breach of contract, along with consumer protection, false advertising, deceptive business practices laws in New York and California.
“Consumers are seeking out whole grain foods, and expect that when they see the words ‘whole grain’ on the package that whole grain is the main ingredient,” says Maia Kats, litigation director with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is helping to represent the plaintiffs in this case. “Kellogg’s Whole Grain Cheez-Its have more white flour than whole grain. It’s effectively a junk food, and Kellogg is taking financial advantage of consumers who are trying to make better decisions for their health.”
UPDATE: Kellogg has responded to Consumerist, calling the “completely without merit.”
“Our Cheez-It Whole Grain labels are accurate and in full compliance with FDA regulations,” reads the statement. We stand behind our foods and our labels.”
The Food and Drug Administration does not have enforceable rules on what constitutes a whole grain product, but it has provided guidance to industry on how to use this label in the best possible way.
“Depending on the context in which a ‘whole grain’ statement appears on the label, it could be construed as meaning that the product is ‘100 percent whole grain,'” reads the guidance, which says that something actually labeled “100% whole grain” should not contain grain ingredients other than those considered to be whole grains.
Similarly, for things like pizza crusts and bagels that are labeled “whole grain,” the FDA recommends (but does not require) that these products should only be made using whole grain flours.
In response to the FDA’s non-binding guidance, the Federal Trade Commission commented that “there is potential for consumers to be misled or confused by unqualified ‘whole grain’ claims for products that contain a mixture of
whole grain and refined grain. Many consumers may interpret such unqualified claims to mean that all or nearly all of the grain in the product is whole grain.”