Yogurt’s sour culture

Chobani's under fire for deceptive TV ads. Lawsuits abound. It all sounds a little...Big Yogurt...to us

They’re calling it “Yogurt Wars,” the exchange of lawyers’ letters and lawsuits last week prompted by Chobani’s latest round of advertising for its Chobani Simply 100 yogurt. The entertainment value is high, but there are a couple of points worth noting:

Chobani’s ads are over the line. The courts will eventually decide whether they violate deceptive advertising laws, but that’s not the standard the rest of us need to apply. And it’s almost impossible to interpret the Chobani ads as anything but scare tactics and half truths. For instance, the print ad attacks Dannon Light & Fit Greek for using sucralose. “Sucralose? Why? That stuff has chlorine added to it!” Marion Nestle put it best: “Shades of The Food Babe” (The clean label blogger favored by ingredient phobes.)

Yogurt's sour cultureFood Politics

Yes, chlorine is used in the manufacture of sucralose. (It’s also part of the chemical composition of table salt.) And yes, there are some studies that would suggest that sucralose should be used more cautiously than it is today, and that certain chlorinated compounds, including sucralose, may have issues. But the stuff is approved for use in food (a decision no one has to agree with), and using sucralose is nothing at all like pouring bleach into the yogurt, as the ad seems to suggest. Sugar and sweeteners are a complicated problem that needs nuanced solutions. Going all Trump on the topic helps no one in the long run—especially consumers.

Legal or not, that’s bad.

The most offensive part of the ad was the attack on Yoplait Greek 100 for using potassium sorbate as a preservative. Again, if you don’t want preservatives in your foods, more power to you. But Chobani’s crack—“That stuff is used to kill bugs”—is false by any reasonable standard. Potassium sorbate is used to control mold and fungus in plants, not insects. And Chobani should know something about mold. In September 2013 more than 200 of its customers were sickened by a batch of yogurt contaminated with a virulent form of Mucor circinelloides—a mold. There’s a reason why food manufacturers started using preservatives in the first place.

We love a competitive marketplace and vigorous debate about what’s good and bad in products. But in this round of ads, Chobani is not just trashing its competitors—it’s trashing the quality of the discussion. And legal or not, that’s bad.

Yogurt lawsuits are nothing new. And Chobani comes in for its share. Some examples:

  • In 2012 a man named Martin Taradejna sued Yoplait, arguing that its Greek yogurt wasn’t yogurt at all because it contained milk protein concentrate and violated several Minnesota laws. Judge Susan Nelson deferred to FDA, which does allow MPC in yogurt
  • Two years later a pair of New Yorkers launched class action suits against Chobani and Fage, arguing that the “0%” label the two products use on their fat-free products created the impression that the were free of calories or sugar, and that the use of the term “evaporated cane juice” on the ingredients list was deceptive. They also claimed that the products shouldn’t be called “Greek,” because they didn’t come from Greece and weren’t made by Greeks. (Don’t laugh. In England, that’s exactly what the courts ruled.) The suit was dismissed.
  • Since 2014 Chobani has been battling with consultant Dov Seidman over a Chobani ad using the slogan “How matters.” (That is, the way you do things is important.) The slogan was very close to the trademarks Seidman developed in the course of building his business of helping companies develop more ethical cultures. When last we heard, the two parties were still swapping motions and barbs
  • This past spring, Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya settled a billion-dollar lawsuit launched by his ex-wife, pediatrician Aysa Giray. Giray had demanded 53 percent ownership of the company, which she said was created “out of the rib” of a feta cheese company she helped fund before the couple divorced. She also alleged that Ulukaya had bribed an employee of Fage and stolen the company’s yogurt recipe. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed

Mr. Pot, meet Mr. Kettle. It’s great to see top yogurt brands battling over which of them is the healthiest and best for customers. But let’s be real. Dannon, Yoplait, and Chobani are not in the health food business, even though individual products may have a decent profile. The Cornucopia Institute recently scored 130 yogurt brands on things like use of preservatives and thickeners, sugar content, use of artificial sweeteners, and so forth. (The study looked at brands, not individual products, though it did rank organic and non-organic lines separately.) The standards were stricter than many of us would apply on our own, and the weighting system may be a bit arbitrary. But consider this: The top brands, Butterworks and Maple Hill Creamery, received scores of more than 1,600 points. Chobani, with 675, did a lot better than Yoplait with 175 and Dannon with 50 (and a ranking of 129 out of 130), but it was still in the bottom half of the listings.

Just saying.

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Patrick Clinton is The Counter's contributing editor. He's also a long-time journalist and educator. He edited the Chicago Reader during the politically exciting years that surrounded the election of the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington; University Business during the early days of for-profit universities and online instruction; and Pharmaceutical Executive during a period that saw the Vioxx scandal and the ascendancy of biotech. He has written and worked as a staff editor for a variety of publications, including Chicago, Men’s Journal, and Outside (for which he ran down the answer to everyone’s most burning question about porcupines). For seven years, he taught magazine writing and editing at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.