As part of the settlement, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., agreed to drop the suit it threatened back in December.
The dust-up is further evidence that consumers are still fairly befuddled by nutritional marketing claims, and that whole grains claims don't tell the whole story.
The marketing free-for-all started with the 2005 guidelines issued by the U.S. government. Based on health research, these new guidelines asked Americans to up their daily whole-grain consumption to three or more servings per day, with at least half--about 48 grams--coming from whole grains. (Most people fail miserably: A study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that the typical American eats 77% more of the refined grains than are suggested, yet only consumes about 34% of the recommended whole grains.
Advocates like CSPI have insisted that products that mislead consumers into thinking they are eating more of the "good" carbs and less of the "bad" are part of the problem, and that the loophole laden "made with whole grain" claim is the culprit. Kraft Supermac & Cheese, for instance, is advertised as a "good source" of whole grain, even though its first ingredient is white flour, CSPI says, and the same is true for "whole-wheat" Ritz crackers.
Some marketers, including General Mills, have begun shifting toward more meaningful claims, by listing the amount of whole grains in grams. Sara Lee's new packaging will call out that two slices have 10 grams of whole grain in product "bursts" that will appear on packaging within six months, says a spokesperson for the Downers Grove, Ill.-based company.
"Soft & Smooth Made With Whole Grain White Bread has always been marketed as a transitional product," she says. "This is targeted specifically to consumers who love white bread, particularly that sticky texture. We've always been really proud of how many grams of whole grain this contains, and it's always been included anyway," she says.
"This settlement will help consumers comparison shop among breads: plain white bread, breads like Sara Lee's with 30% whole grains, and 100% whole wheat bread," says a spokesperson for CSPI.
While many companies make claims that are troublesome, CSPI says it pursued Sara Lee because the claim was right in the product's name, says Steve Gardner, CSPI litigation director, "and it's a company that makes a lot of claims about its grains. Many companies are using more and more whole grain in their food, and we don't want to discourage it--we want to congratulate it. But we also don't want people to think they are getting more whole grains than they are."