Are Some Low-Cal Food Claims Big Fat Lies?

Officials stress Cloverhill simply sells packaged pastries, and was not in any way complicit with either Ligon or Patterson. But the bakery is among several details of the two cases that appear virtually identical — also including reduced fat and calorie claims for ersatz "carob coated" doughnuts and other pastries, officials say.

Authorities say around 1994 they received numerous complaints from distributors, dieticians, health food stories and consumers about alleged misrepresentation involving Patterson's products.

"One woman in Georgia feared for the health of her husband, who liked the 'skinny' [Patterson] products, but who also had diabetes," according to an article about the Patterson case on the FDA's Web site. "Another woman in Mississippi piled on the pounds during the six months that she ate $500 worth of allegedly skinny products. Similar complaints continued to filter in from all over the country, and many were accompanied by product samples."

The case struck a chord among dieters and others in the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago.

"Everybody in the office was outraged," says Madeleine Murphy, the assistant U.S. attorney on the case. "I've had offenders that have committed crimes that were far more serious to the public health … but there's something unique about this case."

A judge sentenced Patterson to a year and a day in jail, followed by three years of supervised release, and ordered him to pay a total of $3,925 in restitution to people who could document being defrauded. Patterson began serving his term in March 2001.

‘Eating Themselves to Death’

The prison sentences for the doughnut scammers came as Americans generally are growing fatter, and ailments stemming from obesity and lack of exercise are threatening to overtake those from smoking as America's No. 1 preventable cause of death, according to a government study.

"Far too many Americans are literally eating themselves to death," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said March 12 at a news conference where the government sought "voluntary compliance" by restaurants to list the calorie content of dishes on their menus, and by food packagers to clarify total calories and serving sizes on labels.

Existing laws require food packagers to list calories per serving, as well as fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, sugar, fiber and protein content. But officials say some manufacturers claim there are multiple servings in packages that consumers might perceive to be a single serving. Such labeling can lead to lower totals for fat and calories, and require consumers to multiply by the number of servings to get the full total.

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