If Greek yogurt is a staple in your diet, you may be interested in what Marion Nestle is calling the yogurt wars on her Food Politics blog. If you're both fascinated by and fed up with food marketing like I am, you may be interested in the drama going on between yogurt companies.
Chobani, a brand of yogurt that I've never tried (I prefer Siggi's Icelandic skyr-style yogurt), has gone negative about other yogurt brands — specifically Dannon and Yoplait — in its latest marketing campaign for its 100-calorie yogurt.
Chobani's marketing campaign
In television commercials and print ads, Chobani is implying that Dannon's and Yoplait's versions of 100-calorie Greek yogurt contain ingredients that are associated with chemicals they may, or may not, really be associated wtih. Take a look.
What's stated in the above commercial is that Dannon's Light & Fit 100-calorie Greek yogurt contains sucralose, and that sucralose has chlorine in it. Sucralose.org confirms that the ingredient does indeed have chlorine in it, three atoms of chlorine per molecule of sucralose. When the chlorine is added to sugar, it converts it to sucralose, "an inert, unreactive substance." The chlorine atoms stop the sucralose from breaking down in the body and becoming energy, or calories.
Chobani isn't overtly saying anything untrue, but it clearly is implying something that Dannon says is not true. By placing the woman who throws the yogurt away next to a swimming pool, the company is implying that the chlorine in the yogurt is the same chlorine that gets dumped in a swimming pool.
Michael J. Neuwirth, a spokeman for Dannon, told NBC the implication is "misleading and deceptive."
"Chlorine in the form suggested by the Chobani commercial — like what might be used in swimming pools as a disinfectant — is not found in sucralose or any Dannon product," said Neuwirth. "...It is in fact safe and FDA-approved as a sweetener in foods."
Dannon has sent Chobani a cease-and-desist letter, telling the company to stop using ads like this and threatening to take further measures if necessary. Chobani, in turn, has filed a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court and is asking the courts to declare that Chabini's advertising is not "false, misleading, disparaging or deceptive" and that all the company's advertising does is point out facts.
Dannon, however, isn't the only yogurt company that has an issue with Chobani's ads. General Mills, makers of Yoplait, has also filed a lawsuit against Chobani over this commercial.
Potassium sorbate, according to the Environmental Working Group, "is a potassium salt of sorbic acid, a naturally occurring antimicrobial compound; used as a preservative." It's a very common preservative used to keep foods fresh. In the ad, Chobani claims the preservative is "used to kill bugs."
When you hear "kill bugs," there's a good chance that you think of a pesticide, right? It's not a stretch to assume that Chobani wants consumers to think that something in Yoplait's yogurt is also used by someone like the Orkin man. Yoplait says this isn't true.
General Mills, reports the Consumerist, says potassium sorbate is not an insect killer but it does prevent "yeasts and molds" from growing in the yogurt.
“General Mills is informed and believes that there is no scientific evidence that potassium sorbate is effective against insects,” the company said in the suit, noting that potassium sorbate is considered safe by multiple federal agencies, according to the lawsuit.
Both Dannon and General Mills are saying that the Chobani ads may do irreparable damage to their yogurt brands.
Always be aware that marketing is meant to get you to buy something
Those are the basics in the yogurt war — which is a good reminder to always question marketing claims. Always. Become a critical thinker when it comes to the claims food brands make.
When you hear a claim that an ingredient in a food "kills bugs," ask yourself questions like, "Is everything that kills bugs harmful for you?" The answer is "no." There are natural things that kill bugs — for example, grits can kill ants naturally when they expand in their stomach or apple cider vinegar, which lures fruit flies into a container where they drown in the vinegar. Those were the first thoughts I had when I heard Chobani's claims before I read General Mills' explanation.
The leaves of the Stevia plant contain sweeteners that can be up to 400 times sweeter than sugar, but the extraction process may use chemicals. Some say this makes it an artificial sweetener. (Photo: Forest and Kim Starr/flickr)
What about Chobani's claim that its yogurt is the one that contains natural sweeteners? When you hear natural sweetener, what comes to mind? Probably sugar, and then perhaps honey, syrup or agave. Does Stevia come to mind? Stevia is in Chobani's 100-calorie yogurt. The stevia plant is all-natural, but to extract the sweet components of the leaf often requires chemicals. Commercial Stevia can be a highly processed product, so much so that some consider it an artificial sweetener.
Chobani's yogurts also use "natural flavors." That can mean a lot of things, including that natural flavors can start from a natural source that has had its flavor extracted, chemically altered, and then added back into the food, according to an interview with the Environmental Working Group's David Andrews on CNN.
Choose based on ingredients and nutrition, not marketing
It's difficult to get away from food marketing. It's everywhere and it's meant to entice you. When I find myself intrigued by a product, I always question the marketing claims, and more importantly, I look at the packaging to find the ingredients and the nutrition label; that's where the real information is. Once I read that information, I can make an educated choice about whether I want to buy it for my family or not.
When trying to make educated choices about yogurt, the Cornucopia Yogurt Buyer's Guide is a helpful place to start. It's a scorecard that rates brands as a whole, not on each individual yogurt they sell based on their use of organic ingredients, types of sweeteners, how much sweetener, colors and flavors, preservatives and more. The guide points out that some of the higher rated brands may have an individual product that wouldn't fall within the high rating and some of the lowest rated brands might have an individual product that would score much higher.
The guide is a useful jumping-off point for you to study, and then do what the study encourages consumers to do: read the label on each yogurt carefully