This is food for thought.
New York’s “vanilla vigilante” lawyer — famed for suing food and beverage brands over their deceptive labeling — says there are several popular products that shoppers should look closely at if they want to avoid being scammed at the supermarket.
Spencer Sheehan hit headlines for launching a $5 million class action lawsuit against Kellogg’s in 2021, claiming their Whole Grain Frosted Strawberry Pop-Tarts contained an inadequate amount of actual strawberries.
While that suit was dismissed, the Great Neck, Long Island-based litigator has also gone after other supermarket staples, including Snapple, saying their “all-natural” fruit drinks contain surprisingly little amounts of actual juice.
“Just be careful — because companies are trying to trick people,” Sheehan, 44, told The Post in a new interview.
Read on for Sheehan’s list of the worst offenders in the grocery aisles nationwide:
Breads and juices
The legal eagle believes that the most deceptive packages are often on breads and fruit juices — and he is urging consumers not to fall for fancy words and images.
“Many breads in the bread aisle of the supermarket will contain labels and names such as ‘multigrain,’ ‘stone grain,’ ‘oat grain’ and ‘hearty wheat’ when they are actually only refined grains,” Sheehan said in the suit.
Earlier this year, Sheehan also represented a peeved consumer who filed a lawsuit against Bimbo Bakehouse, accusing the company of falsely branding Cheesecake Factory-licensed bread as whole grain.
“Despite the labeling of the Product as ‘Brown Bread,’ with a dark brown color … the Product is not made of mainly whole grains,” the suit read.
That case was also dismissed by a judge, but Sheehan insists that many other bread brands are making bogus claims.
Meanwhile, the attorney alleges that “fruit” juice companies are another of the worst offenders when it comes to dubious labeling.
“Many products in the juice aisle will be described as ‘mango,’ ‘passionfruit’ or ‘pineapple’ when they are mainly white grape juice or apple juice with just a drop of the flavor of mango or passionfruit or pineapple,” Sheehan insisted.
‘Vanilla’ flavored products
Sheehan has previously been dubbed New York’s “vanilla vigilante” for filing multiple suits against companies claiming that their products contain real vanilla.
Last year, Sheehan’s law firm reached a $2.6 million settlement with Blue Diamond over a proposed federal class action about the company’s Almond Breeze vanilla-flavored milk and yogurt products.
Meanwhile, he has also engaged Chobani in litigation over two of their vanilla-flavored yogurts.
In court papers filed in New York State’s Supreme Court last year, Sheehan asserted that the word “vanilla” was misleading on both Chobani’s oat-based vanilla and vanilla-strawberry yogurts.
“The flavoring used to simulate the … characterizing vanilla flavor is not from vanilla beans, [but] from artificial petrochemical sources and, made through artificial processes,” he insisted.
The Post contacted the yogurt company for comment.
“Most things that have big letters telling you that they are vanilla do not actually contain any vanilla,” Sheehan told The Post.
In fact, Sheehan has filed more than 100 lawsuits against food companies claiming they deceived consumers with claims that their products contain real vanilla.
America’s favorite snacks
Sheehan has also targeted the makers of some of America’s favorite snacks in his long list of lawsuits.
He has filed a suit against the markers of Hint of Lime Tostitos, claiming that there is an absence of lime in the popular corn chip and that their labeling is duplicitous.
The lawyer has additionally taken on Keebler, saying their fudge-mint cookies lack real fudge and mint.
Trident has also been in Sheehan’s sights, with the lawyer claiming in court docs that their Original Flavor gum contains no real mint, despite having a picture of the plant on the cover of its packaging.
Meanwhile, The Post reported in 2021 that Sheehan represented a Wisconsin woman after she alleged that pizza-flavored Bagel Bites don’t actually use real cheese.
The suit alleges that the lunchtime staple’s manufacturer, Kraft Heinz, is lying to consumers by including the “real” dairy stamp on its products.
Sheehan has also sued Conagra Brands over its claim that their popular Snack Pack Chocolate Fudge Pudding is “made with real milk.”
The attorney filed the suit saying none of the ingredients meet the FDA’s definition of milk because they don’t contain enough milkfat.
Muesli, granola and energy bars
New York City nutritionist Dr. Lisa Young agrees that the labels on supermarket staples can be particularly pernicious.
She told The Post that muesli, granola and energy-bar products are also among the worst offenders.
Young said such food items are often marketed as “better for you products,” duping shoppers into believing they have health benefits. Therefore, consumers are not only more likely to purchase the items, they’re also more likely to consume them in greater quantities.
Meanwhile, both Sheehan and Young agree that it’s easy for shoppers to fall for deceptive labeling.
“When I’m shopping, I don’t have a lot of time,” Sheehan admits, saying he often has to stop himself from believing claims on the front of an aesthetically pleasing package. “I’m in a rush and I’m doing two things at once.”
Young said many of those highly processed packaged food items are also cheaper to purchase than organic options, which can be particularly problematic for families struggling to make ends meet amid astronomical inflation.
What to do when a box of Strawberry Pop-Tarts is cheaper than a punnet of actual strawberries?
Sheehan and Young said it’s important for shoppers to simply be skeptical every time they enter the supermarket — and flip the box or bottle over to scan the ingredients list and any fine print.
“Pay no attention whatsoever to claims [made by manufacturers],” Young implored. “The No. 1 thing you want to look at is the ingredients list — and the order of the ingredients. That is so important.”
However, Sheehan and Young aren’t sounding the alarm of “BS” food labels in a bid to shame shoppers about their eating habits or make them feel further anxiety and guilt about their purchases.
They simply want to raise awareness about how pervasive the dubious claims can be.
“It’s okay to have a treat, it’s okay to have something fun,” Young declared — just as long as you know what’s inside of it.
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