One of the big takeaways for me last week when the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1599, a bill that would make it illegal for states to require GMO labeling, is the reminder that our food-labeling system is far from consumer-friendly. The regulations around nutrition labeling and front-of-package labeling are highly influenced by food manufacturers whose primary business motive is to turn a profit.
As consumers become more aware of this fact, they're not only questioning the marketing claims of many foods, they're also suing manufacturers when they think they've been duped. The latest lawsuit is against Blue Diamond, the maker of Almond Breeze non-dairy beverage. Milk alternatives are big business these days, and many people who buy processed products like almond milk believe they're getting a nutritionally sound product based on the marketing claims.
The lawsuit was filed because Almond Breeze contains only 2 percent almonds, but the nutrition information on the packaging doesn't mention that number. The plaintiffs believe this is false advertising based on the "product’s packaging, which includes pictures of almonds and the phrase 'made from real almonds.'" After realizing that homemade almond milk contains about 25 percent almonds, the plaintiffs realized they weren't buying a "healthy and premium product."
According to Time, this same issue came up in the U.K. three years ago, and its Advertising Standards Authority concluded that consumers should be able to figure out "that the production of almond milk would necessarily involve combining almonds with a suitable proportion of liquid to produce a ‘milky’ consistency.”
I'm always torn when I hear about lawsuits like this. Although I think manufacturers have far too much leeway in terms of claims they can make about their products, I also believe that consumers should educate themselves and be less gullible when it comes to food marketing claims. When a mom can successfully sue the makers of a product like Nutella when she realizes it really isn't a healthy breakfast option as the advertising claims (even though she can clearly see the first ingredient in the product is sugar), I have to wonder why adult consumers are so easily swayed by marketing.
Is it that we're so far removed from how foods are actually made that we don't realize what needs to be done to almonds to make almond milk or hazelnuts to make Nutella? Is it that we think processed foods are made just like we would make them from scratch in our kitchens, only a larger scale? Is it that we're too busy to turn a package over and read the nutrition labels — which are flawed but they're a much better indication of actual nutrition than front-of-package labeling? Is it that we trust our government agencies like the USDA and the FDA to be on top of it all and not allow deceptive claims?
I don't know the answer, but I do know this: We have the ability to be better educated about food, and it's our responsibility to educate ourselves. It's not the food manufacturers' job to educate consumers; their job is to sell food. We may not like it, but that's the reality. And, that's why they spend millions fighting labeling rules that might make consumers question whether to buy their product or not.
If you're going to buy a product like almond milk instead of making it yourself, do your research. Decide what you'll accept and what you won't accept in a processed product. If you can't find the information you need to know from reading a product's nutrition label or a company's website, contact the company. I've done that many times. When a company does not respond, I'm left to draw the conclusion that they don't want me to know the answer to my question because they're concerned I'll stop buying the product. Their silence gets the same result.
The Almond Breeze lawsuit is a reminder that processed food manufacturers do what they can to make us think their products are just as healthy as what we'd make at home, but this is rarely the case. If you're going to consume processed foods, do the best you can to educate yourself so you're not surprised to find out you're not buying a "healthy and premium product."
Related on MNN:
- The nutrition facts about almonds
- How much sugar is in a gram?
- General Mills sued for using the term natural