Think you’re eating fruit? Think again – National Consumers League

NCL is calling on the feds to investigate a new food ingredient that’s being sold to food manufacturers as a “sweetened dried cranberry” but actually contains more sugar than fruit and is made from cranberry skins – not whole cranberries.

NCL has alerted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to misleading labeling on a new food product, Ocean Spray’s “Choice.” Because this product is being sold as a “sweetened dried cranberry” for use in breakfast cereals, cereal bars, baked goods, and trail mixes, it has the potential to result in the mislabeling of many other food products on the market.  

“Sweetened dried cranberries” (SDCs) have become the common or usual name for a popular ingredient in a variety of foods, capitalizing on the healthy image of cranberries and cranberry juice. According to our information, SDCs are the fastest-growing segment of the cranberry market. SDCs traditionally consist of dried cranberries infused with sugar and coated with a small amount of sunflower oil. Facing growing demand for SDCs and a limited supply of fruit, Ocean Spray Cranberries Ingredient Technology Group recently introduced the “Choice” product as a less expensive alternative to SDCs. Ocean Spray represents “Choice” as an SDC that merely adds citric acid for flavor and elderberry juice concentrate for color. Marketing materials tout “Choice” as a low-cost SDC with the same taste, texture, appearance, and health benefits as other SDCs. For example, one Ocean Spray press release states that “Choice contains the health benefits associated with cranberry, with high levels of bacteria-repelling proanthocyanidins and antioxidants, as well as the anti-inflammatory flavonoid quercetin.”  

Laboratory analyses by Krueger Food Laboratories, commissioned by NCL, on November 4, 2009, found that “Choice” is really little more than cranberry skin infused with sugar syrup. The lab report, a copy of which is attached to this letter, describes analytical results for two separate production lots of “Choice” and one lot of Ocean Spray “Craisins,” the latter being Ocean Spray’s standard SDC product. The test results indicate that “Choice” consists mainly of sugar. The analysis found that the soluble solids in “Choice” “consist primarily of inverted beet sugar and citric acid” and are “less than those consistent with the use of whole cranberries.” The organic acids content (except for citric acid), potassium content, and anthocyanin content are significantly lower than those for SDCs. The cranberry content is so small that Ocean Spray must add color in the form of elderberry juice concentrate and acidity in the form of citric acid to simulate the color and acidity of cranberries. These findings are consistent with Ocean Spray claims that they use 50 percent fewer cranberries to make “Choice” than they do for their regular SDC product (See Ocean Spray press release entitled “ITG Provides Customers With Choice,” dated October 8, 2008.)

NCL believes that Ocean Spray’s “Choice” product is misbranded. First, given the small cranberry content and different nutrient profile of “Choice,” we do not believe that “sweetened dried cranberries” is an appropriate common or usual name for this product. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations require that the common or usual name of a food “shall accurately identify or describe, in as simple and direct terms as possible, the basic nature of the food or its characterizing properties or ingredients… and may not be confusingly similar to the name of any other food that is not reasonably encompassed within the same name.” 21 C.F.R. § 102.5(a). A common or usual name may be established by common usage. 21 C.F.R. § 102.5(d). NCL believes that the term “sweetened dried cranberry” has become established by common usage as the name for a food product consisting mainly of cranberries infused with sugar and dried to a specific moisture content. Ocean Spray’s “Choice” product, because of its minimal cranberry content and use of other ingredients to simulate the flavor and color of cranberries, should not be named “sweetened dried cranberries.” 

We question whether the word “cranberries” should be allowed at all in the name of this product. When an ingredient is highlighted as a characterizing ingredient in a product name, FDA generally requires that the product contain a sufficient amount of that ingredient to characterize the food. For example, “honey bread” and “honey buns” must contain at least 8 percent honey. FDA, Compliance Policy Guides § 505.350. See also FDA Warning Letter CHI- 24-95 (“made with real fruit” claim is false and misleading “for a product made primarily with corn syrup and sucrose… and containing natural and artificial colors”). If the word “cranberries” is allowed to appear in the product name, NCL recommends that “Choice” be required to use a common or usual name that accurately describes the product and makes clear that the product does not contain whole berries (e.g., “sweetened dried cranberry skins with other flavors and colors” or “flavored cranberry skins”).   

Second, we understand that “Choice” labels include an ingredients declaration that lists cranberries as the predominant ingredient. According to our lab analyses, this is false and should be corrected to list sugar as the predominant ingredient. All food labels are required to list ingredients in descending order of predominance by weight. 21 C.F.R. 101.4(a)(1).  

Third, we question the validity of Ocean Spray labeling and advertising claims that “Choice” delivers the same health benefits as “sweetened dried cranberries” and other cranberry products, given the fact that most, if not all, of the cranberry content has been removed from “Choice.” Aside from lower levels of anthocyanins and potassium, our tests found that “Choice” contains only about one-fifth the amount of quinic acid as Ocean Spray’s Craisins. NCL requests that FDA investigate whether the claims of health benefits for “Choice” are false or misleading.  

NCL is also concerned about the many food products that are currently made with “Choice” or will be in the future. Muffins, cereals, and trail mixes should not be able to pass off flavored cranberry skins as if they were sweetened dried cranberries. To avoid misleading consumers, these products should be required to list “Choice” by its appropriate common or usual name in their ingredients declarations, and to declare the component ingredients in “Choice” in their order of predominance. FDA regulations require nothing less.   

NCL urges FDA to make clear to the food industry that it will not accept ersatz foods and ingredients being passed off to consumers as the real thing, especially where the food in question is marketed for its health benefits. We therefore request that FDA investigate Ocean Spray “Choice” and take appropriate enforcement action.