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What's Really in Your Greek Yogurt? 5 Surprising Ways Food Companies Cheat and Mislead Consumers

Even the most savvy shopper could be persuaded by some of these false claims.
 
 
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Of all the ways marketing pros lie to consumers, their lies about food may be the most maddening. Telling people that buying a new pair of shoes will them look like a supermodel is toxic in its own way, but misleading shoppers into thinking that the food they buy is natural or healthy when it is not is toxic in a much more literal sense.

Of course any halfway-savvy shopper knows that grocery store shelves are positively rife with misleading claims. Nutella claiming it’s a health food? That one was so bald-faced that a recent lawsuit against the company was roundly mocked.

But other lies are more subtle and confusing. Largely unregulated claims like “natural” don’t help the situation, nor does the willingness of food companies to exploit consumer insecurities. “You canhave it all!” the big corporate food companies seem to be saying to grocery shoppers. “You can buy packaged, processed food that saves you time while also becoming healthier, skinnier and more beautiful! The proof is right there on the package.”

Another problem is that food companies, especially the corporate ones, are often willing to cut corners in order to pad their bottom lines.

Below you’ll find examples of all of these problems. Some of the claims are obvious lies, while others may surprise you.

1. Your Greek yogurt may be neither Greek nor yogurt.

If you’ve never tried it before, Greek yogurt is much thicker than regular yogurt, with a higher protein content. It’s a product that’s caught on in the U.S. in recent years, as consumers (I count myself among them) fell in love with the rich, luxurious texture.

As it turns out, some brands of “Greek yogurt” that have started filling up grocery store shelves are not made in the true Greek style. What’s more, some of it may not even technically be yogurt. Consumerist recently wrote a post about the issue, especially focusing on Liberté, which is widely available in U.S. supermarkets:

For example, some companies just add more milk protein concentrate to the mix instead of making and straining a batch of regular old yogurt. According to the Toronto Globe and Mail , Canadian brand Liberté uses this method to manufacture their Greek yogurt. They explain the product on the company web page as follows:

A yogurt strained according to the principles of old-time cheesecloth draining, which gives it an incredibly rich and creamy texture and one that’s absolutely free of fat.

So they use the "principles of old-time cheesecloth draining," but don't double-strain their yogurt. Gotcha. Liberté is now part of General Mills. Some annoyed yogurt-lovers filed a class-action suit against the company, alleging that the use of milk protein concentrate in its Yoplait brand Greek yogurts isn't just misleading to consumers, but means that Greek yogurt products shouldn't legally be permitted to call themselves "yogurt."

Major bummer.

2. Vitaminwater ≠ vitamins + water.

At first glance, Vitaminwater seems like it’d be somewhat healthy-ish – it comes in unnatural colors, yes, but the name suggests that the product is basically vitamin-infused water. Right? Wrong.

In fact, Vitaminwater is a whole lot worse for you than water; the grape flavor contains 13 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving, and lists crystalline glucose (sugar) as the second ingredient. (However, despite widespread claims on the Internet, it is not worse for you than regular soda. Coke contains closer to 30 grams of sugar in every 8 ounces. Natural fruit juices also often contain more sugar than Vitaminwater, though those are, of course, natural sugars.)

If you ever bought into the Vitaminwater-as-health-drink craze, don’t beat yourself up. It would be easy to do with all the misleading claims Vitaminwater’s parent company, Glaceau (which is now owned by Coca-Cola), puts out there. The company was recently caught claiming on its UK Web site that Vitaminwater is "spring water with fruit juice." The company soon backtracked, acknowledging the “incorrect description of the brand’s ingredients.”

As the Huffington Post notes, Vitaminwater has also been targeted for falsely claiming that its products can heal the flu, among other things.

3. Airborne’s claims: not backed up by science.

I’m as guilty as the next gal when it comes to giving Airborne my hard-earned dollars. When I have a cold, I’m so desperate to ease my suffering that I’ve even believed on occasion that the stuff was doing something.

Unfortunately, there’s no legitimate scientific evidence that Airborne does what it claims: knock out colds. As this ABC investigation from 2006 shows, Airborne’s health claims – including, in one release, the claim that the product can relieve you of your cold in as little as an hour – are backed up by GNG Pharmaceutical Services, which is a sham:

GNG is actually a two-man operation started up just to do the Airborne study. There was no clinic, no scientists and no doctors. The man who ran things said he had lots of clinical trial experience. He added that he had a degree from Indiana University, but the school says he never graduated.

Airborne settled a class-action lawsuit over those false claims, paying out more than $23 million in 2008.

Today, Airborne’s claims are more circumspect (“Helps support your immune system!”), but the old myth that Airborne products can help beat a cold lingers.

4. That pomegranate juice is not actually going to help you “cheat death.”

Juice is delicious and generally nutritious (assuming it came from actual fruit and not a vat of fruit-like flavoring). But does pomegranate juice in particular have the ability to help you “cheat death,” the way POM Wonderful claims?

The short answer is no. As I wrote in an article this spring, POM Wonderful recently became embroiled in an FTC false-advertising case for claiming that pomegranate juice has unique powers to ward off prostate cancer, heart disease and other health problems – claims backed up entirely by studies funded by the company itself.

After the FTC concluded that POM Wonderful had created deceptive advertisements, the company doubled down on those false claims, taking an FTC judge’s quotes out of context and putting them in yet more deceptive ads about what a miracle elixir POM Wonderful is.

Remember that the next time you pass by a bottle of the stuff.

5. Activia claims about aiding digestion are full of sh*t.

More yogurt controversy! This time we have Activia, the yogurt brand shilled by Jamie Lee Curtis in those obnoxious commercials full of cringe-worthy euphemisms for pooping.

Last year Activia got slapped by the FTC for falsely claiming that it’s "clinically proven to regulate your digestive system within two weeks." (At the same time, the FTC also got Dannon, Activia’s parent company, for claiming that DanActive is "clinically proven to help strengthen your body's defenses." Dannon had to pay a total of $21 million.)

Apparently there is evidence that Activia can help “temporary irregularity or help with slow intestinal transit time” – if you eat it three times a day. And who is really going to do that?

As in the Airborne case, plenty of consumers are still sure to think that eating Activia for breakfast each day will solve their digestive issues. After all, Jamie Lee Curtis is still making those damn commercials.

Of course AlterNet readers are smart shoppers who already look at products on the grocery store shelf with a critical eye. But even the most savvy shopper could be persuaded by some of these false claims. What’s the solution? Short of growing all our own food or shopping exclusively at food co-ops and farmer’s markets, it’s unlikely most of us will be able to forsake the grocery store altogether, so we’re just going to have to keep calling out companies that lie to us. They’re a bad deal.

Lauren Kelley is the activism and gender editor at AlterNet and a freelance journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon, Time Out New York, the L Magazine, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter.