- Two women are suing Tropicana claiming that the PepsiCo-owned brand is deceiving customers by not disclosing on product labels that several of its juice-based beverages contain artificial flavors. The class action lawsuit was filed Feb. 28 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
- The plaintiffs claim the malic acid Tropicana adds to some of its products, including Trop 50 100% Juice apple drink and Trop 50 Farmstand Apple, is an artificial flavoring agent and not naturally occurring. The complaint stated malic acid is "manufactured in petrochemical plants from benzene or butane — components of gasoline and lighter fluid, respectively — through a series of chemical reactions, some of which involve highly toxic chemical precursors and byproducts."
- The lawsuit also alleged consumers paid more for the Tropicana juice products than if they were correctly labeled. The plaintiffs are requesting monetary damages and a court order to keep Tropicana from committing further alleged deceptive advertising practices. PepsiCo and Tropicana have not publicly responded to the lawsuit.
This recent lawsuit against Tropicana is the latest of several making complaints that malic acid is an artificial flavoring agent and products containing it cannot legally be labeled as "natural." While the ingredient naturally occurs in some fruits such as apples, watermelon and pears, some forms are made synthetically. Drink makers use malic acid to mask the aftertaste of artificial sweeteners, balance sweetness with acidity and function as a preservative.
This isn't the first time Tropicana is facing a consumer lawsuit. The brand was also sued in 2011 for using the label term "100% pure" on its orange juice when the product allegedly contained additives. A federal judge in New Jersey threw out that class action complaint last summer after determining that label claims on various products needed to be individually evaluated on whether they're misleading.
Tropicana is far from the only brand facing such a suit. Bai Brands was the target of a class action complaint in 2018 citing its use of malic acid. LaCroix sparkling water was hit with a complaint in 2018 claiming its products contained synthetic chemical compounds such as ethyl butanoate, limonene, linalool and linalool propionate. That case was recently voluntarily dismissed after the plaintiff couldn't prove there was anything synthetic in LaCroix beverages. However, the company lost market share after the lawsuit was filed, and its stock fell 44% from February to July 2019.
Some manufacturers have made payouts following labeling complaints. Last year, Ocean Spray agreed to pay $5.4 million to settle a class action lawsuit filed in 2017 alleging it labeled some juice products as containing no artificial flavors when they actually did. The company's CranApple juice contains DL-malic acid derived from petrochemicals, and its CranGrape drink contains fumaric acid synthesized from petrochemical feedstocks, according to The National Law Review.
Kellogg and PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division have also been sued over false advertising, according to Bakery and Snacks. A California couple claimed in 2018 that the packaging on Pringles and Lay's Salt and Vinegar chips would make consumers believe they're purchasing an “all natural” snack instead of one that uses artificial flavors.
The same firm — The Law Office of Ronald A. Marron in San Diego — represented plaintiffs in the latter case and a number of others, including the recent Tropicana lawsuit, raising the issue of whether these lawsuits are efforts to access some deeper pockets within the food industry or are legitimately focused on misleading labeling.
One problem with food labeling today is that terms such as "pure" and "natural" have no official definition and therefore their meanings are open to interpretation. According to CBS News, there were approximately 300 lawsuits involving use of the term "natural" on food products from 2015 to 2018.
Some legal challenges have had results. General Mills quit using the term "100% natural" on its Nature Valley granola bars following settlement of a 2016 lawsuit filed by three consumer groups that the product contained trace amounts of the weed-killing chemical glyphosate.
While the FDA has asked for public comments on the term "natural," it hasn't yet come up with a new definition or guidance for industry using it on product labeling. Until it does, manufacturers are likely to continue using the term since it appeals to consumers, and shoppers will probably continue looking for it on store shelves. Should what they find not correspond with their sense of the meaning, though, they may decide to take the issue to court.