Did Jelly Belly Engage in Deceptive Trade Practices With How They Labeled Their “Sport Beans?”

Michael GrossmanAugust 07, 2017 5 minutes

A California woman is currently spearheading a class-action suit against Jelly Belly, the candy company behind the bags of jellybeans in candy aisles everywhere. The company is credited for its diverse lineup of jellybean flavors like Buttered Popcorn, Toasted Marshmallow, and Strawberry Daiquiri..

The suit's plaintiff takes issue with the declared ingredients of some of Jelly Belly's products, or more accurately the undeclared ones. Unsurprisingly her case is not viewed sympathetically by the media; in fact, the Fox News article that brought this to my attention starts by smugly mocking her confusion about the ingredients of jellybeans. In response to this unfair treatment, I felt compelled to offer some perspective on the suit.

Jessica Gomez v. Jelly Belly Candy Company et al: Summary

Earlier this year, Jessica Gomez brought suit against Jelly Belly, alleging confusion over the ingredients present in their line of "Sport Beans" products. These jellybeans are marketed as a sort of nutritional supplement, citing an idealized balance of electrolytes, carbohydrates, and vitamins in each pack.

Folks, I'll be honest: I had no idea anybody was marketing jellybeans as a sport supplement. That's a gutsy move. Still, if consumers want to spend their money on "sports candy," so be it. The suit doesn't take issue with the product's actual existence, but rather with its labeling: Sport Beans' packages list "evaporated cane juice," a dodgy term for sugar, as an ingredient, but the word "sugar" itself is not listed. According to Gomez, the company's "fancy phrasing" tricks health-conscious consumers into believing that the product is sugar-free. If that allegation is upheld it could be seen as an act of intentional deception, which would mean Jelly Belly violated California's Consumer Legal Remedies Act, False Advertising Law, and Unfair Business Practices Law, just for a start.

Jelly Belly filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that "no reasonable consumer could have been deceived by Sport Beans' labeling." In its motion, the company suggests that if Gomez took the time to examine the ingredients, she also would have seen the products' sugar content listed in its Nutrition Facts panel, and therefore couldn't have been misinformed. Moreover, the company argues "Plaintiff does not explain why an athlete--or anyone--would be surprised to find sugar in a product described as 'Jelly Beans.'"

Analysis: Seeing Through the Bean

First let's address the elephant in the room: Yes, someone bought jelly beans as a health supplement. Snicker if you must, but it doesn't really matter how anybody personally feels about it. The question is actually whether the company is telling just enough truth about its product to avoid accusations of lying to consumers, and I'm not sure I buy that. Check out the Sport Beans website and then try to say Jelly Belly's not using some slick marketing to avoid its usual image--you know, as candy, not as some vitamin-enriched trail mix.

Note: It looks like the Sport Beans website now lists "cane sugar" as the main ingredient in the beans, but presumably when the claim was filed that was not the case.

Manufacturers and advertisers are obligated by law not to deceive end-users of their products, but damned if they don't find some clever ways to work around that. A classic example from the era of Saturday-morning cartoons: A commercial for Sugar-Glazed Cocoa Whatsits can't advertise it as "A complete source of nutrition!", but it can say it's "Part of this complete breakfast!" So as long as you have wheat toast, three eggs, bacon, a cup of coffee, some milk, a tall glass of orange juice, and a horse vitamin with that cereal, you'll be good to go.

Keeping these sneaky labeling and advertising practices in mind, it doesn't seem crazy to say that "evaporated cane juice" doesn't exactly resonate with an average consumer the way "sugar" does. As it happens, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seems to agree with Gomez's complaint--while they haven't created any formal regulations about it, the FDA did say in 2016 that it encourages firms not to use the word "juice" unless referring to that of a fruit or vegetable.

Here's the real question: If Jelly Belly is so certain that no consumers could be fooled by the substitution of "evaporated cane juice" for "sugar," then why did they bother to make that switch in the ingredients? After all, to paraphrase Shakespeare, "Sugar by any other name will taste as sweet." If it's truly of no consequence and they didn't expect anyone to be fooled, what was the point of calling it something else?

This Wouldn't Be Okay in Other Areas.

If "evaporated cane juice" seems like a harmless rephrasing and not a deliberate mislead, think about other situations where a euphemism, while still technically correct, could cause harm if misunderstood:

  • Instead of warning about a rash of burglaries, what if police just advised that "incidents of involuntary property reallocation have experienced a surge?"
  • A potential new employee says in his interview that he is "exploring career options." That's a good way to avoid saying "unemployed because his previous manager fired him for drunkenly crashing a forklift."
  • If someone told me to prepare for "amateur nasal realignment," I'd probably be too confused to avoid the described punch in the nose.

None of the above examples are technically lies, but the truth in each is incomplete and self-serving--not false, but certainly deceptive.

That's what's happening with Jelly Belly--they found a way to lie without lying, and now it's up to California's justice system to determine whether their misleading label is bad enough to be considered a violation of consumer protection laws. Of course, the court of public opinion doesn't require the law to render its verdicts, and the media seems only too happy to pour gas on that fire.

Fox News Strikes Again

The piece about the Jelly Belly lawsuit leads with this quote:

When it comes to food, it turns out you can sue over just about anything these days.

Boy, talk about misleading. That line leads readers to jump straight to "Someone didn't know jelly beans have sugar in them, can you believe that? Nyuk nyuk." Whatever one's opinion may be about the plaintiff's dietary knowledge, it's important to read her allegations more carefully. What actually happened is that she looked for sugar in the ingredients of her Sport Beans, but didn't find it. That indicates she expected it, but didn't recognize "evaporated cane juice" as the same thing. Why would she? Who except someone trying to avoid using the word "sugar" would use such a term for it? After all, a company could say that a log of cookie dough is "packed with proven sources of energy," and while it's not a lie, it is a very shifty way to represent sugar and fat.

It doesn't seem like there's any real reason to lampoon Jessica Gomez for taking issue with Jelly Belly's sleight of hand. Calling this a frivolous complaint or lambasting her ignorance of jellybeans' contents is entirely missing the purpose of the suit. She is taking this company to task for telling half-truths in the name of marketing, and the consuming public would certainly be better off if the defendant learned a thing or two about best practices.