Sara Lee Accused of Whole Grain Whitewash
CSPI Litigation Unit Serves Notice of Intent to Sue Over “Whole Grain” White Bread
December 17, 2007
WASHINGTON—On several Sara Lee web sites, the company muses about how consumers are likely to mistakenly believe that many “whole grain” breads are actually more like whole wheat bread than white bread, and chides its competitors for not being “100-percent whole-grain.” Yet Sara Lee helps foster that confusion by marketing a “Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White Bread” and falsely claiming that it is as nutritious as whole wheat bread. Today the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest served the company with formal notice that it will file suit against the company if the misleading claims continue.
Sara Lee claims that its Whole Grain White Bread has “the taste and texture of white bread with the goodness of whole grain,” and “whole grain goodness with all the mouthwatering pleasure of scrumptious, soft, white bread.” By claiming “an exciting innovation” in white bread, the repeated “whole grain goodness” claims are particularly misleading because some new breads are in fact, made with a white whole-wheat flour that is, in fact, whole wheat. And one version of a label for the Sara Lee product at issue made the patently false statement that “Sara Lee Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White [bread] = 100% Whole Wheat.”
“This ‘whole grain’ bread is mostly refined white flour, the kind of flour that health authorities recommend Americans eat less of,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “Sara Lee is attempting to put a whole grain halo on a bread that is not whole wheat. I call that a whole grain whitewash.”
On breadrules.com, a web site operated by Sara Lee, a press release for a genuinely 100 percent whole wheat Sara Lee bread regretfully ruminates that “seven out of 10 consumers mistakenly believe their wheat bread is 100% whole wheat,” and that “50 percent of traditional wheat bread consumers mistakenly believe their bread is the best nutritional choice.” Another Sara Lee site, thejoyofeating.com, lets consumers test breads by Arnold, Nature’s Own, Pepperidge Farm, on a “Whole-Grain-o-Meter” to see if the product is 100 percent whole grain or not. While the meter rates several Sara Lee breads, its Whole Grain White Bread is tellingly absent.
A patronizing pledge form on that site gives the impression that switching to a Soft and Smooth whole grain bread is an act of nutritional virtue. But in fact, only 30 percent of the grain in Sara Lee’s Soft and Smooth Whole Grain White Bread is whole grain, and the rest is refined white flour, according to news reports. In fact, there is more water in this product than whole grain.
“It would be more accurate to say that this Sara Lee product is brimming with the wholesome goodness of white flour and water,” said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. “The intent is to confuse consumers, who are denied the nutrition they think they are paying for. It’s hard to see how a judge or jury would let a company get away with such an obvious fraud.”
CSPI’s notification to Sara Lee says it wants the company to stop the misleading whole grain claims and to donate to charity the profits it has received from “Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White Bread” that it has earned since its introduction in 2005. Sara Lee has 30 days to respond to CSPI’s settlement offer.
According to Gardner, the supermarket is replete with breads, bagels, crackers, and frozen pancakes and waffles that pretend to be whole grain.
CSPI’s litigation project has successfully negotiated binding legal settlements with other food companies over misleading labeling. As a result of CSPI’s negotiating, Cadbury-Schweppes will no longer call its high-fructose-corn-syrup-sweetened 7Up and Snapple products "natural," Aunt Jemima blueberry waffles are now labeled to make it clear that the blueberries are artificial, and Quaker Oats agreed to tone down exaggerated claims about the cholesterol-lowering abilities of oatmeal. CSPI withdrew a lawsuit it filed against KFC after that chain announced it would switch to trans-fat-free frying oil, and negotiated with Kellogg a historic pact that changed the way that company markets food to young children.