Food & Alcohol

Published on April 21st, 2020

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By The Numbers: Vanilla Flavor Class-Action Lawsuits

Last summer, TINA.org reported on a trend in class-action litigation alleging that vanilla is not the sole flavoring ingredient in four brands of vanilla ice creams. Since then, the number of fake vanilla lawsuits has exploded. TINA.org is currently tracking nearly 80 class actions challenging claims that a variety of foods and beverages are truly vanilla.

The trend in class-action litigation began in February 2019. That’s when a lawsuit was filed against A&W root beer and cream sodas alleging that the front labels of the sodas prominently claim that they are “made with aged vanilla” when, according to plaintiffs, they actually contain a chemical flavor that “mimic[s] the taste of vanilla.” Fake vanilla lawsuits peaked late last year when 10 lawsuits were filed in both October and December. So far this year, 34 complaints following this trend have been filed.

Specifically, the lawsuits allege that products marketed as “vanilla” contain flavoring ingredients that do not actually come from vanilla beans. Many of the complaints allege that marketing materials fail to adequately disclose that vanilla products contain natural flavors (which can comprise more than 100 chemicals, some of which may be synthetic) instead of or in addition to vanilla ingredients. (Federal regulations and guidance define vanilla ingredients and set out a standard for vanilla ice creams that says the characterizing flavor must come from vanilla beans.) Some of the complaints also allege that coloring ingredients and vanilla specks — brown or black dots — are added to products to make them look more like the flavor comes from vanilla beans.

Here’s a breakdown of the products at issue in the complaints.

In TINA.org’s sampling, 36 percent of the cases pertain to ice cream products, including several popular brands of ice creams such as Turkey Hill, Breyers and Edy’s. The Turkey Hill lawsuit claims that vanilla is not the sole flavoring ingredient in vanilla ice creams and that the ice creams contain a coloring ingredient used in cheddar cheese to make the color look more like the flavor comes from vanilla. Plaintiffs in one Breyers case allege that vanilla ice creams are made using non-vanilla flavoring ingredients, as well as coloring ingredients and brown specks to make the product look more like the flavor is derived from vanilla. In the Edy’s case, plaintiffs allege that only some of Edy’s vanilla ice creams contain a vanilla ingredient. Another complaint claims that the front label of Wegmans French Vanilla Ice Cream says the product contains “No Artificial, Colors, Flavors or Preservatives” to make consumers think the flavor comes from vanilla beans when the ingredients list does not include a vanilla ingredient and reveals that the ice cream contains “Natural Flavor” and a coloring ingredient. Other companies named in the complaints include Friendly’s, Walmart, McDonald’s and 7-Eleven.

Another 38 percent of the cases concern plant-based beverages. Plaintiffs allege that:

Lawsuits targeting other types of beverages — including tea, milk, soda, protein drinks and energy drinks — make up 11 percent of our sampling. Some of the products named in complaints include Monster Vanilla Cream Triple Shot Espresso, Oregon Chai Vanilla Chai Tea Latte, Walmart’s Parent’s Choice Pediatric Shakes, Horizon Milk and Vanilla Coke. In these four cases, plaintiffs allege that the ingredients lists for these products reveal that they contain non-vanilla flavoring ingredients (specifically, “Natural Flavors”) and no vanilla ingredients. Another lawsuit alleges that, even though vanilla is in the name of Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Vanilla herbal tea, the ingredients list shows that the tea contains a French vanilla flavoring ingredient (namely, “Natural French Vanilla Flavor”) but no vanilla ingredient, such as vanilla extract.

Foods (other than ice cream) are at issue in the remaining 15 percent of the lawsuits. There are cases taking issue with vanilla marketing claims for cookies, cereals, granola, cake mixes, caramel syrup and yogurts. Two complaints in this category were filed against Trader Joe’s alleging that its cereals have vanilla in the name but the ingredients list discloses that the cereals contain “Natural Flavor” instead of vanilla. (Click here and here for more about these cases.) Plaintiffs allege that, even though the front label of Almond Breeze Almondmilk Yogurt Alternative says “vanilla with other natural flavors,” the ingredient list shows that the product actually contains more “Natural Flavors” than vanilla extract. Another lawsuit in this category alleges that the label of Smucker’s Caramel Sundae Syrup, which includes images of vanilla ice cream and a vanilla milkshake, implies that vanilla contributes to the caramel flavor in the syrup, when the vanilla flavor actually comes from the artificial flavor vanillin.

Eight of the cases were voluntarily dismissed and five were settled. All the rest remain pending.

All but three of the lawsuits were filed in New York. The other cases were filed in Alabama (1) and California (2).

For more of TINA.org’s coverage of class-action lawsuits regarding vanilla products, click here.

UPDATED: 7-8-20

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