Sara Lee defends 'made with whole grains' bread

by Eric Schroeder
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DOWNERS GROVE, ILL. — Sara Lee is dismissing as "offensive" and "uninformed" allegations the company is misrepresenting the healthfulness of its Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White.

Following accusations from the Center for Science in the Public Interest that Sara Lee falsely has claimed the top-selling bread is as nutritious as whole wheat bread, Sara Lee responded the name accurately reflects the transitional nature of the product. The bread is made from a blend of 30% whole wheat flour and 70% enriched wheat flour.

"That name (Sara Lee Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White Bread) was chosen while we were working with the federal Food and Drug Administration," Sara Lee said. "We believe that it clearly describes the product. Since 2005, this product has contributed to the whole grain nutrition needs of many white bread lovers who might not otherwise have consumed that much whole grain."

Also since 2005, the product has been hailed as a highly successful launch. Earlier this year, Sara Lee said Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White Bread has risen to the rank of the nation’s best selling single bread stock keeping unit.

By pointing to the "whole grain goodness" of its products Sara Lee "is attempting to put a whole grain halo on a bread that is not whole wheat," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the C.S.P.I. "I call that a whole grain whitewash."

Notwithstanding these criticisms, the introduction of Soft & Smooth followed calls from prominent nutritionists for baking companies to pursue creative ways to raise the public’s intake of whole grains.

One such call was from Jane Brody, nutrition columnist at The New York Times, who addressed the 1999 annual meeting of the American Association of Cereal Chemists, now known as AACC International.

Ms. Brody urged food manufacturers to consider "evolutionary" change that would be acceptable to the public. She likened her proposal to a person shifting from whole milk to skim milk but eases the transition by consuming first 2%- and then 1%-fat milk before changing to non-fat milk. Just such an approach appears to have been followed by Sara Lee and other baking companies introducing "made with whole grains" bread varieties.

Steve Gardner, C.S.P.I. litigation director, accusing Sara Lee of fraud, found fault in the Sara Lee bread not only for its enriched wheat flour but also for its water content.

"It would be more accurate to say that this Sara Lee product is brimming with the wholesome goodness of white flour and water," Mr. Gardner said. "The intent is to confuse consumers, who are denied the nutrition they think they are paying for. It’s hard to see how a judge or jury would let a company get away with such an obvious fraud."

In fact, a U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional database estimates the water content of white bread, at 36%, slightly beneath whole wheat bread, at 37%.

Speaking with Milling & Baking News, Mr. Gardner said Sara Lee should follow the lead of other companies that do not incorporate the term whole grains into the brand name but place wording on the package such as "now made with 5 grams of whole grains."

The C.S.P.I. said it wants Sara Lee to "stop the misleading whole grain claims" and to donate to charity the profits it has received from Soft & Smooth Made with Whole Grain White Bread since the product’s introduction in 2005."

Sara Lee was firm in its stance.

"If C.S.P.I. had contacted us before they issued their press release and demand letter, they would have seen that we have similar goals," Sara Lee said. "We offer a wide range of 100% whole grain breads, enriched white breads and nutritionally transitional products made with a blend of whole wheat and enriched wheat flour that are designed to help consumers increase their consumption of whole grain blends without a radical change in taste and consistency, similar to how consumers transition from whole milk to skim milk using 2%."

The C.S.P.I. has given Sara Lee 30 days to respond to its settlement offer before pursuing possible litigation.

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