New York’s ‘vanilla vigilante’ lawyer – famous for suing food and drink brands for misleading labeling – says there are several popular products that shoppers should take a close look at if they want to avoid getting ripped off at the supermarket.
Spencer Sheehan made headlines for launching a $5 million class-action lawsuit against Kellogg’s in 2021, claiming their Whole Grain Frosted Strawberry Pop-Tarts contained an insufficient amount of real strawberries.
Although that suit was dismissed, the Great Neck, Long Island-based attorney also took aim at other supermarket staples, including Snapple, claiming their “all-natural” fruit drinks surprisingly contain little juice.
“Just be careful, because companies are trying to trick people,” Sheehan, 44, told the Post in a new interview.
Read on for Sheehan’s list of the worst offenders in the nation’s grocery aisles:
Breads and juices
The legal eagle believes the most misleading packaging often concerns bread and fruit juices – and it urges consumers not to be trapped by fancy words and images.
“Many breads in the supermarket bread aisle will have labels and names such as ‘multigrain’, ‘stone grain’, ‘oat grain’ and ‘hearty wheat’ when they are not actually reality than refined grains,” Sheehan said in the lawsuit.
Earlier this year, Sheehan also represented an irate consumer by filing a lawsuit against Bimbo Bakehouse, accusing the company of falsely labeling Cheesecake Factory’s licensed bread as whole grain.
“Despite labeling the product as ‘Brown Bread,’ with a dark brown color…the product is not composed primarily of whole grains,” the complaint states.
That case was also thrown out by a judge, but Sheehan insists many other bread brands make false claims.
Meanwhile, the lawyer says “fruit” juice manufacturers are another egregious offender when it comes to questionable labeling.
“Many products in the juice aisle will be described as ‘mango,’ ‘passion fruit,’ or ‘pineapple’ when they are mostly white grape juice or apple juice with just a drop of “mango or passion fruit or pineapple flavor,” Sheehan insisted.
“Vanilla” flavored products
Sheehan was once nicknamed New York’s “vanilla vigilante” for filing several lawsuits against companies that claimed their products contained real vanilla.
Last year, the Sheehan Law Firm reached a $2.6 million settlement with Blue Diamond over a proposed federal class-action lawsuit involving the company’s Almond Breeze vanilla-flavored milk and yogurt products.
At the same time, it also engaged Chobani in litigation over two of its vanilla yogurts.
In legal papers filed in New York State Supreme Court last year, Sheehan claimed the word “vanilla” was misleading on Vanilla and Strawberry Vanilla Oat-Based Yogurts. from Chobani.
“The flavoring used to simulate the characteristic aroma of vanilla does not come from vanilla beans, (but) from artificial petrochemical sources and manufactured using artificial processes,” he insisted.
The Post has contacted the yogurt company for comment.
“Most things that have big letters telling you they’re vanilla don’t contain vanilla,” Sheehan told the Post.
In fact, Sheehan has filed more than 100 lawsuits against food companies for allegedly misleading consumers by claiming their products contained real vanilla.
America’s Favorite Snacks
Sheehan also targeted the makers of some of America’s favorite snacks in his long list of lawsuits.
He filed a lawsuit against the makers of Hint of Lime Tostitos, claiming there was an absence of lime in the popular corn chips and its labeling was misleading.
The lawyer also took on Keebler, saying the company’s fudge and mint cookies lacked real fudge and mint.
Trident has also been in Sheehan’s crosshairs, with the lawyer claiming in court documents that Original Flavor gum does not contain real mint, despite a photo of the plant appearing on its packaging.
Additionally, The Post reported in 2021 that Sheehan represented a Wisconsin woman after she alleged that pizza-flavored Bagel Bites did not use real cheese.
The lawsuit alleges that breakfast staple maker Kraft Heinz is lying to consumers by including the “real” dairy stamp on its products.
Sheehan also sued Conagra Brands for claiming its popular Snack Pack Chocolate Fudge Pudding was “made with real milk.”
The attorney claimed in the suit that none of the ingredients met the Food and Drug Administration’s definition of milk because they did not contain enough milk fat.
Muesli, granola and energy bars
New York nutritionist Dr. Lisa Young agrees that labels on supermarket staples can be particularly pernicious.
She told the Post that muesli, granola and energy bars are also among the worst offenders.
Young said these food products are often marketed as “better-for-you products,” misleading buyers into believing they have health benefits. As a result, consumers are not only more likely to purchase the items, but they are also more likely to consume the snacks in larger quantities.
Meanwhile, Sheehan and Young agree that it’s easy for shoppers to get caught in the trap of misleading labeling.
“When I’m shopping, I don’t have a lot of time,” Sheehan admits, saying he often has to stop himself from believing the claims on the front of aesthetically pleasing packaging. “I’m in a hurry and doing two things at once.”
Young said many of these highly processed packaged food products are also cheaper to purchase than organic options, which can be particularly problematic for families struggling to make ends meet amid inflation. astronomical.
What to do when a box of strawberry Pop-Tarts costs less than a punnet of real strawberries?
Sheehan and Young said it’s important for shoppers to be skeptical every time they walk into the supermarket and turn over the box or bottle to scan the ingredients list and fine print.
“Don’t pay any attention to (the manufacturers’) claims,” Young implored. “The No. 1 thing you want to look at is the ingredient list – and the order of the ingredients. It’s so important.
However, Sheehan and Young aren’t sounding the alarm about “BS” food labels in an effort to shame shoppers about their eating habits or make them feel more anxiety and guilt about their purchases.
They simply want to raise awareness of the ubiquity of dubious claims.
“It’s okay to treat yourself, it’s okay to have fun,” Young said – as long as you know what’s in it.