Peanut butter is made from peanuts, tomato paste is made from tomatoes, and guacamole is made from avocados, right?
Wrong. The guacamole sold by Kraft Foods Inc., one of the bestselling avocado dips in the nation, includes modified food starch, hefty amounts of coconut and soybean oils, and a dose of food coloring. The dip contains precious little avocado, but many customers mistake it for wholly guacamole.
On Wednesday, a Los Angeles woman sued the Northfield, Ill.-based food company, alleging that it committed fraud by calling its dip "guacamole." Her lawyer says suits against other purveyors of "fake guacamole" could be filed soon.
The suit, which seeks class-action status, highlights the liberty some food companies take in labeling their products.
If consumers read the fine print, they would discover that Kraft Dips Guacamole contains less than 2% avocado. But few of them do. California avocado growers, who account for 95% of the nation's avocado crop, said they didn't know that store-bought guacamole contained little of their produce.
"We have not looked at this issue, but we might follow it now that we are aware of it," said Tom Bellamore, the top lawyer at the California Avocado Commission in Irvine.
Kraft and other food companies said they weren't deceiving customers by skimping on the avocado. A Kraft spokeswoman said most people understood that guacamole was part of the company's line of flavored dips.
"We think customers understand that it isn't made from avocado," said Claire Regan, Kraft Foods' vice president of corporate affairs. "All of the ingredients are listed on the label for consumers to reference."
Nonetheless, Kraft is relabeling the product, which could not be found during a random check of six Southern California supermarkets this week.
Regan said the company was changing its label to make it clearer that it was selling guacamole-flavored dip. She said she was not familiar with the lawsuit.
Brenda Lifsey, the plaintiff, said she made a three-layer dip with Kraft guacamole last year only to discover that it contained almost none of the ingredient she most expected: avocado.
"It just didn't taste avocadoey," said Lifsey, who identified herself as a federal employee who lives in Los Angeles. "I looked at the ingredients and found there was almost no avocado in it."
In her suit against Kraft, Lifsey is asking the Los Angeles County Superior Court to stop Kraft from marketing the dip as guacamole. She also wants attorneys' fees and unspecified punitive damages.
Lifsey has been a plaintiff in other lawsuits against large corporations. A few years ago, she joined a lawsuit against Sears, claiming that the retailer misrepresented that its Craftsman tools were U.S. made. That case is still in the courts. She also was part of a suit filed last year against vehicle reporting service Carfax Inc., alleging that it did not have access to police accident reports in California and other states even though it advertised that it could provide vehicle history records. Carfax denied the claims.
Unlike peanut butter, which by law must contain at least 90% peanuts, the Food and Drug Administration has no legal standard mandating how much avocado should be in guacamole. The FDA requires only that the labeling be truthful and not misleading, agency spokesman Michael Herndon said.
"For FDA to say that the food is misbranded because it contains only a small amount of avocado, we would have to find that the labeling is misleading, which would likely require some consumer data to prove the labeling is misleading," he said.
Consumer advocates say the FDA should either set standards or force Kraft and other manufacturers to better disclose how little avocado is in their dips.
"It is really deceptive marketing," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, which three years ago called for more accurate labeling of guacamole dips.
At the time, Jacobson said the companies were "begging to be sued."
Like much of the prepared guacamole sold in supermarkets, Kraft guacamole is essentially a whipped paste made from partially hydrogenated soybean and coconut oils, corn syrup, whey and food starch. Yellow and blue dyes give it the green color.
That's probably not what the Aztecs had in mind when they invented guacamole about 700 years ago. They made a sauce called ahuaca-mulli, which roughly translates to "avocado mixture," according to the avocado commission. The dip was prepared by mashing avocados, sometimes with tomatoes and onions in a molcajete, a Mexican mortar and pestle.
In the modern recipe, some cooks add lime juice to keep the guacamole from discoloring. The dip has become an American tradition, especially on Super Bowl Sunday. About 50 million pounds of guacamole were consumed during the big game this year, according to the Hass Avocado Board in Irvine.
Kraft declined to give U.S. sales figures for its guacamole dip but said it was a very small-volume product.
With the right potato masher, making guacamole can be easier than pie. Brands such as Trader Joe's, Yucatan and Calavo use mainly avocado in their guacamole. But other companies opt for cellulose gum, avocado powder and ample food coloring.
When it acquired the Dean's food line last year, Ventura Foods of Brea discovered that Dean's Zesty Guacamole Dip contained skim milk, eggs and some avocado pulp. But Ventura decided not to change the recipe, said Christina Ong, a company marketing manager.
"I have no idea what consumers expect," she said.
Many consumers say they expect to find lots of avocado in their guacamole.
"This is surprising: It's skim milk, oil and soybean," said Long Beach utility worker Dave Oehlman as he read the ingredient list of an Albertson's brand at the supermarket chain's store on Spring Street in Long Beach. "You would have thought they would put more avocado in this."
"You have to keep it green. How do they do that?" he asked before reading the label that disclosed the doses of food coloring.
His companion, Christy Cloughy, said, "I'm going to stick to avocado."