Food for Life Baking has been sued in New York for allegedly making fraudulent and misleading claims on its Ezekiel 4:9 sprouted grain cereals, Food Navigator reported. The complaint, filed Jan. 13, is the first against a maker of sprouted grain foods, the site noted.
According to plaintiff Ronnie Elliott, the California-based wholesale bakery firm is fraudulently describing its products containing sprouted grains as nutritionally superior. However, there's no way to accurately evaluate such claims, the complaint stated.
"By the time the sprouted grain is dried, grounded into flour and heated, any nutritional benefits which may have existed have been extinguished," the lawsuit, cited by Food Navigator, asserted. It also stated the company's on-package claims of sprouted grains and legumes containing more complete protein is misleading.
This lawsuit appears to hinge on whether sprouted grains are nutritionally better than conventional grains and whether the labeling claims on the company's cereals are justified. According to lawyers who spoke with Food Navigator, this is uncharted legal territory, so it's uncertain if the case sets a precedent or will be tossed out.
Sprouted grains are different from regular whole grains, according to nutritional experts, but the degree of actual difference is in some dispute.
Kristina Secinaro, a registered dietitian at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, told the Harvard Health Letter that the germination process breaks down starch in sprouted grains, so nutrient levels are higher, and they may be easier to digest. These nutrients include folate, iron, vitamin C, zinc, magnesium and protein.
"I do think there are benefits to sprouted grains, but they’re not a cure-all," she said.
Others point out that studies of the differences have been small, and so are the contrasts in nutrient concentrations. Nevertheless, nutritional experts say it's better to have sprouted grains than processed ones, but that whole grains also are a healthier choice.
It's not clear whether processing sprouted grains into cereals neutralizes any nutritional benefits. It does, however, help to neutralize the dangers of pathogens that can grow on sprouted foods. According to Penn State Extension, salmonella and E. coli can quickly grow to unsafe levels on contaminated sprouts because of the warm and humid conditions required. That's why the Food and Drug Administration recommends all sprouts be fully cooked.
There is likely to be plenty of attention on this lawsuit as it moves through the legal system. Baking companies will watch to see whether federal standards are developed to better define sprouted grains and their relative benefits. At this point, they're considered equivalent to whole grains if certain conditions are met, but that's about as far as it's gotten.
Another potential outcome is that Food for Life may be ordered to tone down its packaging claims to only those that can be scientifically proven to regulators' satisfaction. This has been one outcome of food-related lawsuits in the recent past. It's not necessarily a lucrative settlement for the plaintiff and/or the law firms involved.
Regardless of how this particular case turns out, food and beverage manufacturers are wise not to let labeling claims get ahead of current scientific findings about the relative benefits of their products. Still, tamping down some claims can be hard as companies fight for limited consumer dollars and coveted shelf space.