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Video: Rossen: ‘Fruit’ in food often made of sugar, oil

updated 11/14/2012 7:44:13 AM ET 2012-11-14T12:44:13

Are some healthy-looking foods really misleading you? TODAY National Investigative Correspondent Jeff Rossen exposes some colorful marketing tactics that experts say may leave you feeling blue.

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When you go food shopping, what's the first thing you look at? The packaging. So when you see pictures of healthy berries, you think: "I'm getting healthy berries." Look, no one thinks you're getting a full day's serving of fruit in a box of cereal, but if the label shows berries, shouldn't you be getting some? Experts say some of the biggest food companies are fooling you. Those so-called berries? You won't believe what they're really made of.

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Take a spin in the grocery store: It's like a berry bonanza. From your favorite breakfast foods to those popular energy drinks, even kids' yogurts, the labels grab you: Real fruit, full of vitamins. And many of us eat it up.

“It gives the impression that it's healthier," said one shopper. "Blueberries in cereal, that's great," another told us. "You get everything in one box."

Video: Rossen: ‘Fruit’ in food often made of sugar, oil (on this page)

But some experts say it's a trick — that food companies go a long way to fool you. Take Special K Fruit and Yogurt cereal: Look at all those fresh berries on the front of the box. Reaching into one, I told Michael Jacobson, who runs the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer watchdog group, "This looks like a real berry to me."

"But it ain't," Jacobson said.

"So are there any actual berries in here?" we asked.

"No berries whatsoever."

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Jacobson said these berry "imposters" are in a lot of foods, like blueberry Eggos. Then there's Aunt Jemima's Blueberry Pancakes. The label proclaims "made with real blueberries," but there's a catch.

"It has blueberry bits," Jacobson said. "And what is that? It's mostly sugar and soybean oil, then little bits of real blueberry that's been artificially colored."

That's right: he says those blue chunks are actually that concoction shaped into balls and dyed to look like real berries. "It's fake," Jacobson said.

"If the companies were in this room, they would say: 'Look, we're printing the ingredients on the label. No misleading advertising here,'" we told him.

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"You can't deceive people in big print and pictures on the front of the label, and then give the correct answers on the back of the label," Jacobson replied.

Shoppers say it's a berry bait-and-switch. "I think they're duping people," one told us. "It's complete false advertising; I think that it's dishonest," said another.

So if consumers feel that way, why do the companies still do it? We wanted to ask the group representing the food industry, but they declined our request for an interview, instead sending us an email saying they "support laws requiring labels to be truthful and non-misleading," and these labels "are permitted" under FDA regulations.

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In fact, companies can show whatever fruit they want, as long as they use the one little word "flavored" on the label.

"So if you see the word 'flavored,' either natural or artificial, it could be a red flag that there's actually no fruit within that product," nutritionist and TODAY contributor Joy Bauer told us.

Take some yogurts from Dannon, made for kids: Lots of pictures of fruit. Guess how much fruit is actually in there? Absolutely zero. All legal because of that word "flavored."

Read more investigative journalism from Rossen Reports

"The Food and Drug Administration is asleep at the wheel," Jacobson told us. "It rarely brings complaints against these companies."

"Why?" we asked.

"I suspect the Food and Drug Administration doesn't want to tangle with big companies who could keep them tied up in court for years," he replied.

He said one of the trickiest is vitaminwater. Take their kiwi-strawberry flavor: "We're suing Coca-Cola, which owns vitaminwater, because there aren't any strawberries and there aren't any kiwis in there," Jacobson said.

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"What's in here?" we asked.

"A lot of sugar. That bottle contains almost as much sugar as a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola."

Coca-Cola is vehemently fighting the lawsuit, saying there's nothing on the label of kiwi-strawberry vitaminwater that would mislead a reasonable consumer.

Read more investigative journalism from Rossen Reports

"Companies are gonna make a lot more money if they can imply that there are berries in the product, but not put them there," Jacobson said. "They're saving a lot of money, but they're cheating consumers."

The food companies told us some of that real fruit on the package is meant as a serving suggestion, and is disclosed in small print. The FDA says it does inspect labels, and it's cracking down on companies that break the law. The agency told us it's your responsibility to read the entire label, not just the front.

To read statements from food companies and the Grocery Manufacturers Association in response to this report, click here .

Have an idea for a future edition of Rossen Reports? We want to hear from you! To send us your ideas, click here.

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