The Candification of Our Food: The Case of the Fruit-Less Fruit Snack

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is challenging General Mills for promoting sugary treats as a healthful alternative to real fruit

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The fruit snack is a slippery little beast. Wander into your local natural food store, and you might find a packaged fruit snack with one ingredient: fruit. Look in the package, and you'll see something that looks like a piece of dried fruit flesh. But just about everyplace else, the items being sold as fruit snacks have a much more tenuous relation to the stuff of apples, strawberries, and mangos. These ubiquitous and popular snack items are molded sweet morsels, soft and a little chewy. They are called fruit snacks because they are made from fruit. Sort of.

One wonders how lawyers might mount a defense of a product like Strawberry Fruit Roll-Up, whose ingredients list omits strawberries entirely.

It's a huge category: Fruit snacks are on the product lineup of breakfast behemoths like General Mills and Kellogg's, fruit brands like Mott's and Welch's, and specialty companies with names that promise healthier processed food like Florida's Naturals and Annie's Organics. Based on my extensive field testing, I am happy to report that most of these fruit snacks are quite yummy. But they are also almost indistinguishable from soft gummy candies.

Note, however, that the word candy is never, ever used to describe this product. The adherence to this definitive nomenclature on the part of producers and consumers alike is what we call "pulling a fast one." What distinguishes the fruit snack from other chewy candies is the substitution of sugars derived from cane, beet, or corn with sugars derived from fruit. Fruit juices, purees, and fruit pectins enhance the fruit content boasted on the package of many brands. But even if all the ingredients started out as fruit, what the fruit snack primarily delivers is sugar. Sugar from fruit, sugar from cane, sugar from corn, no matter: sugar is sugar.

Packages plastered with fruit bouquets and boasting fruit juices and purees give this category an aura of virtue that other candies can only envy. The problem is that the wholesome fruit goodness of fruit snacks is wholly imaginary. Fruit snacks are not fruit. They're not better than candy. They are candy.

So I want to be first in line to cheer for the plaintiff in the latest salvo in the food wars: a class-action suit against General Mills targeting its line of Betty Crocker-branded fruit snack products, including Fruit Roll Ups, Fruit by the Foot, Fruit Gushers, and Fruit Shapes.

The complaint (PDF), filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California on October 14, alleges that General Mills "is conveying an overall message of a healthful snack product to parents when, in fact, the products contain dangerous, non-nutritious, unhealthy partially hydrogenated oil, large amounts of sugar, and potentially harmful artificial dyes." The suit accuses General Mills of using misleading packaging and marketing in order to "deceptively convey the message that its products are nutritious and healthful."

The specific Fruit Snacks named in this complaint are a pretty easy target, at least in the court of public opinion. One wonders what convoluted reasoning lawyers might deploy to mount a defense of a product like Strawberry Fruit Roll-Up, whose ingredients list omits strawberries entirely, and rapidly devolves from "Pears from Concentrate" (aka sugar) to "Corn Syrup, Dried Corn Syrup, Sugar, Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil, Citric Acid, Acetylated Monoglycerides, Fruit Pectin, Dextrose, Malic Acid, Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), Natural Flavor, Color (red 40, yellows 5 & 6, blue 1)."

Presented by

Samira Kawash researches and writes on the cultural and social history of candy in 20th-century America. She is professor emerita, Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ). She blogs on candy history and opinion at CandyProfessor.com.

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