Whole Foods Accused of Suckering Customers With Sugar Synonym

Angry shoppers claim the grocer is trying to disguise the sweetener by calling it ‘evaporated cane juice.’

(Photo: That Other Paper/Flickr)

Jul 9, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Whole Foods, say it isn’t so!

The upscale national grocer has built its reputation on transparency, almost single-handedly catapulting foods that are arguably better for you (and better for the planet) to prominence beyond your crunchy local mom-and-pop health food shop. Despite that, it appears to be taking a page from the playbook of big food and is vigorously defending itself against allegations that it misled customers into believing they were getting something healthier than sugar when they bought cookies made with “evaporated cane juice.”

In a class-action lawsuit filed in Missouri in April, plaintiffs charge that “evaporated cane juice” is just another healthy-sounding way of identifying sugar, and that by using such a euphemism on the ingredient label for its nutmeal raisin cookies, Whole Foods is engaging in false and misleading advertising, Food Navigator–USA reported.

The Food and Drug Administration would appear to agree—sort of. The agency issued a draft guidance in 2009 in which it advised the food industry that “sweeteners derived from cane syrup should not be listed on food labels as evaporated cane juice because the sweetener is not juice as defined in federal regulations.” Yet, because the FDA never finalized the rule, it’s not legally binding—which is why you’ll find “evaporated cane juice” instead of sugar on countless ingredient lists. The agency reopened the comment period for the rule in March of last year, but it doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to settle the confusion. An FDA spokesman told FoodNavigator–USA that the agency has “no firm date” for finalizing the rule.

The ongoing uncertainty has led to a spate of class-action lawsuits over the past few years, such as the one Whole Foods now faces. The grocery chain’s line of defense is more or less the same as that of companies that have fought similar suits, which essentially boils down to incredulity that customers could be so, well, stupid.

In court papers filed last week, Whole Foods asserts that buyers instinctively “associate the word ‘cane’ with ‘sugar cane’ and thus know it to be a sweetener.” If you didn’t think it was sugar, what the heck did you think it was? the company seems to ask when it asserts, “The complaint contains no factual allegations regarding what the plaintiff (or any other consumer) thought [evaporated cane juice] to be if not a sweetener.”

Despite whatever cynicism might be inspired by learning that the plaintiffs in a number of these class-action lawsuits have been represented by the same handful of lawyers, you’ve still got be suspicious of the claims of Whole Foods, et al., given that the companies charged with misleading customers into thinking evaporated cane juice is some sort of better alternative to sugar all benefit from a perceived halo of goodness.

Among the food makers that have faced similar challenges in recent years are yogurt makers Chobani and Wallaby, as well as Late July Snacks, Blue Diamond, and the makers of Zola acai and pomegranate drinks, Steaz Ice Teas, and Santa Cruz Natural Lemonade Soda and Orange Mango Soda—in other words, just the sorts of products you tend to find in your local Whole Foods. Surely it’s no accident that these purveyors of purportedly “healthier” (processed) foods ended up identify their sweetener of choice as “evaporated cane juice,” with its vague ring of some kind of old-fashioned artisanal process in which sugarcane is juiced and then left to crystallize amid gentle breezes beneath the warm tropical sun.

Truth be told, “all sugar is evaporated cane juice,” Judy Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Sugar Corp., told NPR a while back. As the news organization reported: “Sanchez says all sugar is made by taking the liquid out of the sugarcane plant, evaporating it and then putting it in a centrifuge to separate the gooey molasses from the crystallized sucrose. She says the only difference between evaporated cane juice and common white sugar is that the white sugar is stripped of all traces of molasses, while evaporated cane juice still has some little flecks of molasses that give it a darker caramel color.”

“It’s got negligible amounts of nutrients or anything like that,” the sugar rep continued. “Healthwise it’s not any better or worse for you.”