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When it comes to Making Food Choices, You Can’t Believe Every Label You Read

April 10, 2013
Colson Hicks Eidson

Sometimes reading the labels on food products is not enough.  Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issues guidelines for food labeling, some food manufacturers regularly abuse the regulatory scheme and make misleading and deceiving claims about their products.  Case in point:  Colson Hicks Eidson recently filed a class action lawsuit against ConAgra Foods, Inc. on behalf of all consumers who purchased Parkay Spray in Florida because the labels on Parkay Spray mislead consumers about its true calorie and fat contents.

Parkay Spray is a liquid margarine product used for cooking and as a topping for vegetables, poultry, and other foods.  The labels on the Parkay Spray plastic bottle claim that the product contains zero calories, zero grams of total fat, and zero calories from fat.  In fact, the class action complaint alleges that one bottle of Parkay Spray actually contains approximately 832 calories and 93 grams of fat.

The complaint explains that, to make its zero-calorie and zero-fat claims about Parkay Spray, ConAgra set the serving size of Parkay Spray at an artificially small size to take advantage of little-publicized FDA rules about nutritional content claims.  If one serving of a food product contains less than 5 calories, the FDA allows the food manufacturer to claim that the product contains zero calories.  Similarly, if one serving of a food product contains less than 0.5 grams of fat, the FDA allows the food manufacturer to claim that the product contains zero fat.  ConAgra has set the serving size of Parkay Spray at only 1 spray (0.2 grams) for cooking and 5 sprays (1 gram) for topping.  As the complaint alleges, based on these artificially small serving sizes, ConAgra then justifies its claims about zero calories and zero fat.

Thankfully, there are also FDA regulations about what the proper serving size of food products must be.   The FDA-mandated serving size for liquid margarine products like Parkay Spray is 1 tablespoon.  The complaint alleges that five sprays, or 1 gram, of Parkay Spray is not the equivalent of 1 tablespoon.  Rather, one tablespoon of Parkay Spray is the approximate equivalent of 55 sprays (or 11 grams).  In other words, the complaint alleges that an accurate, FDA-mandated serving size of Parkay Spray is 11 times larger than the artificially small serving size ConAgra uses.

Colson Hicks Eidson is investigating whether similar products, including I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Spray and Smart Balance Buttery Burst Spray, are engaging in any form of improper labeling or improper marketing to consumers as well.