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Wegmans is being sued because its vanilla ice cream has no vanilla

If it’s not vanilla, then what IS it?
Bloomberg via Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

One of the country's top-rated grocery stores has just come under fire from two shoppers who are disappointed with one of its frozen desserts.

Wegmans, an East Coast chain that recently earned the highly coveted title of America's best supermarket chain, has a line of its own branded food items. Among them is its Vanilla Premium Ice Cream.

But according to a lawsuit filed earlier this month, that vanilla ice cream isn't really vanilla at all.

A pint of Wegmans Vanilla Premium Ice Cream.
A pint of Wegmans Vanilla Premium Ice Cream.Wegmans

On Oct. 4, attorneys filed a complaint with the Southern District of New York on behalf of two Wegmans customers, Quincy Steele, Jimmy Arriola, and "all others similarly situated." In the complaint, the attorneys state that the store's vanilla ice cream is deceptive because it does not actually contain any real vanilla.

On Wegmans' website, the store brand's Premium Vanilla Ice Cream says it is made from cream, skim milk, liquid sugar, milk, egg yolks and natural flavor. To note, the ingredients do not explicitly state "vanilla" or even "natural vanilla flavor."

The lawsuit says that consumers expect vanilla ice cream to be flavored by "real vanilla" from a vanilla plant. Wegmans' ice cream gets its vanilla flavoring from non-vanilla sources, which is misleading to consumers, allege the plaintiffs.

But if Wegmans' natural flavor isn't derived from vanilla beans, what is natural flavoring?

According to the Food and Drug Administration's Code of Federal Regulations, natural flavor falls under a large umbrella of possible ingredients, which may very well be something entirely different than the food that it actually tastes like.

"The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional," the FDA stipulations say.

When it comes to vanilla specifically there are several natural flavoring agents used to mimic the flowering plant's distinctive aroma. One natural flavoring agent is actually made from an anal secretion emitted by beavers. Wegmans, which operated stores in seven states, would not confirm the source of the vanilla flavoring used in its ice cream but provided the following statement to TODAY: "We take great pride in the quality of all of our Wegmans Brand products. We believe that the labeling of our ice cream fully complies with all regulations and industry standards, and is not misleading in any way."

Jeni's Splendid Vanilla Ice Cream

The ice cream label also says, "Food You Feel Good About," and states that there are no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives in the product.

Sure, the difference between natural, organic and regular products can be tough to navigate for many consumers, but from a purely legal standpoint, Wegmans' promise seems up to snuff — at least according to federal standards.

The product description of the vanilla ice cream states that "the Wegmans family" offers patrons a refund for any products they don't love.

But for vanilla purists seeking store-brand desserts, a lawsuit will have to do.