Guacamole and green tea

Think that guacamole is mostly avocado? Nuh-uh. Fortune's Marc Gunther explains how some food labels mislead consumers.

By Marc Gunther, Fortune senior writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- They say you can't judge a book by its cover. All too often, you can't judge a food by its label, either.

Take Kraft (Charts) guacamole dip. Actually, don't - not if you, like most of us, operate under the belief that the primary ingredient in guacamole is avocado.

Kraft's dip, it turns out, contains less than 2 percent avocado. Last month, a California woman sued the company for fraud, saying the guacamole label is misleading.

Or consider Enviga, a sparkling green tea drink that will be rolled out nationally next month by Coca Cola (Charts) and Nestle. It's being marketed as "the drink proven to burn calories."

This is technically true but don't think of Enviga as a diet-in-a-can. You'd have to drink gallons of the stuff to lose a noticeable amount of weight.

There is, alas, no shortage of similar examples. A watchdog group called The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) dropped a lawsuit against PepsiCo (Charts) last year after the company agreed to change the label of its Tropicana Peach Papaya drink - a beverage that contains neither peach nor papaya juice.

Now, some of this is harmless. No one expects to find a strawberry in a box of Strawberry Jell-O. Food ingredients are plainly listed on labels required by the Food and Drug Administration.

But the misleading labels raise a bigger issue, and it's called trust. At a time when trust in big business is low - and when the food industry, fairly or not, faces escalating concern over the epidemic of obesity in the United States - you would hope, and think, that the industry would go out of its way to avoid marketing practices that are even potentially misleading.

"You shouldn't have to read the small print when you visit the supermarket," says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Big companies are trying to cheat people by using cheaper ingredients than the more valuable ones pictured on the label."

In fairness, Kraft's guacamole dip costs less than the real thing. It sells for about $1.29 for an eight-ounce tub, while the avocado-based guacamole sold at my local Whole Foods (Charts) costs $4.99.

And, to its credit, Kraft decided to change the label on its dip from "Kraft Dips Guacamole" to "Kraft Dip -- Guacamole Flavor" several months ago. A more accurate label would be "Kraft Water Oil Corn Syrup and Artificial Flavorings Dip," as the ingredient list shows:

WATER, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED COCONUT AND SOYBEAN OIL, CORN SYRUP * , WHEY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE (FROM MILK), FOOD STARCH - MODIFIED, CONTAINS LESS THAN 2% OF POTATOES, SALT, AVOCADO * , DEFATTED SOY FLOUR, MONOSODIUM GLUTAMATE, SODIUM CASEINATE, Tomatoes*, VINEGAR, LACTIC ACID, ONIONS * , PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN OIL, GELATIN, XANTHAN GUM, CAROB BEAN GUM, MONO- AND DIGLYCERIDES, SPICE, WITH SODIUM BENZOATE AND POTASSIUM SORBATE AS PRESERVATIVES, GARLIC * , SODIUM PHOSPHATE, CITRIC ACID, YELLOW 6, YELLOW 5, ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, BLUE 1, ARTIFICIAL COLOR. *Dried

As for Enviga, there are nearly as many words on the label of a 12-ounce can as there are in this column. But above the name of the drink is the message Coca-Cola wants consumers to hear: "The Calorie Burner." An image of a flame reinforces the point.

Parke Wilde, director of food policy and applied nutrition at Tufts' nutrition school, who writes a blog about food policy, told me: "Many consumers are going to see the term 'calorie burner' and think it means weight loss." Of course they are.

But that's not Coca-Cola's intention, according to Dr. Rhoda Applebaum, Coke's chief scientist. She says: "In no way, shape or form are we suggesting that Enviga is a weight loss beverage. Any one product, or food, in and of itself, cannot work magic."

Dr. Applebaum explained to me that Enviga burns calories because it gently speeds up people's metabolism. The drink contains an antioxidant called EGCG, or epigallocatechin gallate, found in green tea, and caffeine.

Enviga's label says: "Three cans per day of Enviga have been shown to increase calorie burning by 60-100 calories in healthy normal weight 18-35 year olds." A peer-reviewed study tested 31 people, in part by putting them in a metabolic chamber for 24 hours to measure their breath.

Let's assume that the claims are true. They add up to this: If you drink those three cans a day for 30 days, you would burn about 3,000 calories. That's five-sixths of a pound of fat. The cost? About $116 for a month's supply. (It sells for $1.29 a can.)

Which isn't to say that you should avoid Enviga. I just cracked open a can of the "natural flavor" (meaning green tea) that Coke sent me, and it's got a refreshing, if slightly metallic, taste.

Just be aware it's more likely to shrink your wallet than your waist.

Tell us what you think.

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