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Preservative Free, or What Have You

“Preservative-free” is a food label that we should all strive for, and plenty of shoppers seek out. Normally, it’s printed right on the front of boxes, such as Lean Cuisine’s boxes of frozen pizza. One customer claims, however, that this label isn’t accurate. Whether she’s right, though, is dependent on whether or not citric acid — a chemical that serves different purposes in different kinds of food — is considered a “preservative.”

In short, a woman who lives in New York City bought a Lean Cuisine at the store and ate it. She paid $3.39 for the pizza. According to her initial complaint, “preservative-free” food was a selling point, and her attorneys note that “[c]onsumers are willing to pay more for products with no additives because of this association as well as the perceived higher quality, health and safety benefits associated with preservative-free foods.”

The “preservative” in question here is citric acid, which can be used for different purposes in different types of food. It can be used to create a “tart” flavor in candy, or to adjust the acidity in non-candy food products.

The Food and Drug Administration indeed lists citric acid as a preservative, and the lawsuit argues that it should be labeled as such in the product’s ingredients, and there should be no “no preservatives” claim on the box.

A food scientist pointed out to Food Navigator that citric acid in a frozen entrée probably serves another purpose, since being frozen inhibits the growth of mold and bacteria, and cooking the food item also kills pathogens.

That leads to a complicated question, at least if you’re a frozen food company: is a product still “preservative-free” if it has a substance in it that can be used as a preservative, but isn’t being used that way in this particular product?

Nestlé USA, the company that sells Lean Cuisine, told TMZ, “The allegations are baseless and we will vigorously defend ourselves. All Nestle products and labels comply with FDA and USDA regulations.”

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