Last week Kraft Foods was sued over the contents of its guacamole dip. It wasn’t zesty added human finger or a touch of rodent that pulled Kraft into the spotlight. This time it was about what was not found in the food: Actual food.
Brenda Lifsey is a federal employee who lives in Los Angeles and has been a plaintiff in other lawsuits against large corporations, such as Sears and the vehicle reporting service Carfax. So there’s no question she’s trying to make a point here, and it’s a good one: A Kraft product labeled Kraft Dips Guacamole contains modified food starch, coconut and soybean oils, food coloring… and less than two percent of actual avocadoes, avocadoes smashed up being the definition of “guacamole” for most of us, right?
A Kraft spokeswoman said that consumers understood that the product was a flavored dip. I guess in the same way we refer to that truck lubricant at the movies as “butter for popcorn.” Kraft can argue, and does, that the ingredients in its “guacamole” are listed right on the package. Although they could have given us a head start by calling the dip “I Can’t Believe There’s No Avocadoes!”
The FDA does not have guidelines for what is and is not “guacamole,” although they have determined that “peanut butter” must be at least 90 percent peanuts. This column has done its critical job of alerting the public to danger by pointing out in previous years that “pudding” can be just about anything, and foods that are “Old Fashioned” might contain chemicals used to adhere tiles to the space shuttle.
Whatever the outcome, Kraft may have done us a service by highlighting the fact that we now move through life using labels we know are bogus and left over from another time. A time when “lemonade” was made from lemons. You can’t really act surprised about their guacamole when you remember that, through the years, Kraft has insisted that certain products were “cheese” just because they were soft and orange. In fact, this latest deception is “organic,” “authentic” and “Old Fashioned” in a way we’ve come to expect.
The Kraft case might give us pause, but that pause will hardly last long enough to count all the different ways we are influenced by language that describes a reality we know is fiction. Were you in Paris that last time you had “French Vanilla Ice Cream”? Enjoyed any “Cajun Shrimp” lately, you know, while sitting on a boat dock with your feet dangling in the bayou? Although in those cases you did get some actual ice cream and shrimp.
This Thanksgiving a somewhat unfocused (“More wine, anybody?”) argument resulted in family members gathering around a computer to determine if “whitefish” was an actual fish, or just a category of fish meat that was white. (As far as we could tell, it’s both.) That lead to a debate about fish sticks that I’m developing as a sitcom pilot, tentatively titled “Mr. Paul.”
While ambiguous labeling is widespread, there are signs that consumers are growing restless about it. For example, at the core of the whole Michael Richards comedy club debacle is the simple fact that the customers weren’t being held in thrall by Richards “comedy.” Otherwise, they might have paid attention and Richards would not have had his tantrum. As a former stand-up, I know that you can sit for hours in a “comedy club” without experiencing any actual comedy, although the guacamole is often quite good.
In a similar way, movies that promise you’ll be “blown away” often fail to generate a breeze, let alone a hurricane. If Kraft is forced to use honest language in identifying its “guacamole” product, maybe the motion picture industry will be made to follow suit. Theaters will have to post warnings that read: “All seats securely fastened to floor to prevent blowing away.” Ads for action films will flatly state “Louder Than the Last One” and “Now with More Senseless Violence.” Meanwhile, the refreshment stands will be made to post the contents of their hot dogs, and those sales will be lost forever.
Far from a conspiracy, I’m afraid we’ve brought all this misrepresentation on ourselves. Certainly when it comes to food, the public has demanded fakes and substitutes that had the aura of the real McCoy but without the calories or the fat. “Cola” can be just about anything, although I believe it has to be brown. “Diet Cola” can be anything, except “cola.” There used to be butter and margarine, now there’s “spread,” which is what, exactly? I think it’s technically anything you can spread on a piece of bread. Sorry, but that’s not narrow enough for me.
In a world where “Chunky Style” means “We Didn’t Bother to Grind Some of the Peanuts,” it may be too much to hope for 100 percent honesty all the time. But there may be something at risk if we press too hard. I certainly don’t want all the romance to go out of eating. To force a waiter to reveal that the Chilean Sea Bass is not really from Chile is to concede that all the faraway, fairytale language on the menu is just thrown in there by the guy that writes the menu copy. Although he’s very good at his Kraft. Uh, craft.