The term “generally recognized as safe” was the basis for a federal judge’s decision on January 29 to order Greek yogurt-maker Chobani to stop airing ads that insinuated that competitors’ products were “unsafe or harmful” and contained chemicals used to kill bugs or clean swimming pools.

Judge David Hurd of the U.S. District Court for Northern New York called the ads “misleading” and ordered Chobani to halt the ads.

Earlier this month, lawsuits were filed against Chobani by General Mills, the maker of Yoplait Greek 100, and Dannon, which produces Light & Fit Greek yogurt.

General Mills alleged in its lawsuit that one of Chobani’s ads contained mistruths. The ad in question features a woman tossing a container of Yoplait into a garbage can after being told by an announcer that it contained “Potassium sorbate… That stuff is used to kill bugs.”

The food manufacturer claimed that the ad implied that Yoplait yogurt is not all natural because it is “laced with a pesticide” and is “so dangerous and unfit to eat that consumers should discard it as garbage.”

In its lawsuit, Dannon took issue with Chobani’s insinuation that its Light & Fit Greek yogurt contains chlorine in a formulation similar to that which “might be used in swimming pools as a disinfectant.”

Hurd wrote in his decision that while Yoplait Greek 100 does contain potassium sorbate, and that while the substance is used as a pesticide, it was not dangerous in the formulation used in the yogurt. He wrote that when potassium sorbate is manufactured for food preparation, it “creates a ‘natural identical’ chemical, meaning it is chemically equivalent to the molecule as it is found in nature (and) is safe for human consumption and, when ingested, breaks down in the body into water and carbon dioxide.”

In ruling in favor of Dannon, the judge wrote that a form of chlorine is found naturally in sucralose, which is used in Light & Fit.

“Evidence reflects that sucralose is an unusually well-studied compound repeatedly determined to be safe for ordinary consumption,” Hurd said, ordering Chobani cease to all advertising implying that Dannon products “are unhealthy because they contain chlorine and that Chobani products, including Chobani Simply 100 Greek, are healthy because they do not contain chlorine.” [1]

Under Hurd’s decision, Chobani must remove the video of the ads from the Internet – the commercials already ran their course on TV. The company can continue to tout the natural ingredients in its products, but may not imply that potassium sorbate makes Yoplait Greek 100 unfit for consumption.

Chobani said it was “disappointed” by the ruling, but that it was “committed to continuing the conversation.”

“This is not a marketing campaign, it’s a mindset campaign, and it outlines the difference between using only natural ingredients versus artificial ingredients,” said Peter McGuinness, chief marketing and brand officer at Chobani. [2]

Dannon plans on going after Chobani for damages. [3]

So, what is the deal with potassium sorbate?

This synthetic ingredient, which is often used in food to prevent mold and yeast growth, can be dangerous in large amounts. Most people don’t eat enough yogurt to consume excessive amounts of potassium sorbate, but it is also found in wine, cheese, pickles, dips, dried meats, soft drinks, ice cream, and other foods. [4]

Packaged and processed foods contain the most potassium sorbate. People who eat a lot of these products may suffer from diarrhea, which can lead to depleted nutrients in their system. Too much potassium can also cause nausea.

People who are allergic to potassium are even more likely to have a bad reaction to potassium sorbate. For these individuals, failing to avoid products containing the preservative can result in renal or kidney problems that become severe over time.

Judge Hurd wrote in his decision that sucralose, which often goes by the brand-name Splenda, contains a natural form of chlorine, but that in of itself is a misleading statement

Food Insight writes:

“While the process to make sucralose begins with sucrose, or table sugar, the final product is different from sugar. Sucralose is made by replacing three select hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sugar molecule with three chlorine atoms, resulting in an intensely sweet, no-calorie sweetener.” [5]

The maker of Splenda boasts that the product “tastes like sugar because it’s made from sugar,” but sucralose is closer to chlorinated sugar than it is to plain old table sugar.

Early research said that sucralose passes through the GI system undigested, so it was believed that it had little or no effect on the body. However, over the last few years, research has shown that sucralose is actually metabolized.

In truth, this “completely safe” sweetener may reduce good gut bacteria, make medications less effective, release toxins when it is baked, alter the body’s insulin responses and blood sugar levels, cause inflammation, and even damage genes. Sucralose has even been linked to Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and obesity. [6]

The FDA says that both potassium sorbate and sucralose are “generally recognized as safe,” but in reality, the verdict is still out.

Sources:

[1] NBC News

[2] CNN Money

[3] HNGN

[4] Fooducate

[5] Food Insight

[6] Prevention


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About Julie Fidler:
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Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.