In a world where cherry pie could lose some filling, and where carrot cake donuts can be devoid of carrots, what’s left for us to trust? We offer the following.

As easy as pie

Let’s start with the cherry pie. In December 2020 the FDA moved to change the standards of what is a cherry pie. Although more people might recognize that the “D” in FDA stands for drugs, since the agency approves and regulates therapies, the “F” refers to food -- these are the folks responsible for all those food recalls.

The FDA has detailed guidelines on what qualifies as a food, specifically for “bread, fruit jams, certain vegetable and fruit juices, and certain types of chocolate .” These are called standards of identity, specific rules for what can or can’t be in a specific product. So, to call something “bread” the FDA allows 16 ingredients -- some obvious, like yeast, eggs or flour -- but also specific preservatives and additives. To be advertised as a bread, a product needs to meet these standards.

But what about a cherry pie?

The cherry pies of old had to meet two standards: at least a quarter of the pie had to contain actual cherries, and only a small fraction of those cherries could be less than perfect - marked, scabbed, and so on. Basically, a pie needed to be chock-full of really good cherries. In 2020, the FDA allowed guideline changes, saying the rules were no longer needed to protect consumers and that changing the rules would allow pie bakers some flexibility regarding how much and what quality of cherry they could choose. The change, said supporters, would open up the market more.

In their proposal to drop the standards of identity for cherry pie the FDA explained that already “The frozen cherry pie standard of identity also states that “artificial sweeteners are not suitable ingredients of frozen cherry pie.” However, baked, frozen cherry pie and baked, non-frozen cherry pie may be made with artificial sweeteners to produce reduced-sugar varieties…” and that new growing technology means some manufacturers use cherries that are less sweet. The FDA cits this as important to meet consumers’ needs, low sugar cherry pies, and to illustrate why the standards of identity are outdated.

Let ‘em eat humbler pie

The American Baking Association asked for the change. Its main argument: if people wanted to spend more money for a frozen pie containing more, better quality cherries, they could, but that people should have the right to buy a less expensive, less cherry-dense pie if they wanted to.

In its argument, the ABA made an excellent point: only cherry pie is regulated in this way. Your frozen apple pie? No rules. Blueberry? A free-for-all. Why should cherry pie be subject to harsher standards? In their proposal to change the rules around cherry pie the FDA wrote “There are currently no standards of identity or quality for non-frozen cherry pie; frozen, baked cherry pie; or any other frozen or non-frozen fruit pies.” The FDA went on to make the point that in other pie markets consumers work out what they have to pay for quality, and can manage and understand a variety of options. The ABA explained in a post that it didn’t think changing standards would change quality. “ Whether it’s frozen cherry pies or other baked goods – the quality would not change...Bakers’ livelihoods depend on the integrity and quality of their products. Consumers are very discerning – even more so than a government agency.”

No dollars for these donuts

This brings us to the subject of donuts. Specifically, the Hostess limited edition Spring Carrot Cake Donettes. In August 2020, a lawsuit was filed in California by Elena Lauchung Nacarino alleging that the labeling of these little donettes was misleading and fraudulent. Despite their name, the “donettes” contain no carrot at all. A federal judge dismissed the plaintiff’s claim in late February citing that [the] “ Plaintiff has not adequately pleaded her fraud-based claims” and both parties signed an agreement. The court told the plaintiff, in essence, don’t come back.

Although it feels duplicitous to advertise carrot cake with absolutely no carrot, it isn’t against any rules. The issue is so confusing that in 2016 the FDA actually published a guide to explain the situation to consumers.

Using examples like lemon and maple, the guild tried to explain that things can be advertised as “maple” or “maple-flavored” but have no real maple syrup in them. Likewise, a product can look like it has real fruit with pictures of them on the box, but unless fruit is listed as an ingredient, that’s just advertising. Bottom line, the ingredients list can’t lie -- that part is regulated. The front of the package, the side that usually faces the consumer, is as much about advertising as it is about information. Indeed, those Hostess Donettes did not list carrot as an ingredient. On the package, just above the words “carrot cake mini donuts” are the words “artificially flavored.”

Shifting standards

Cherry pie isn’t the only product changing, the FDA is also proposing a change to french dressing. Proposed in 2020 at the urging of the Association for Dressings and Sauces, this change would remove the standards of identity for french dressing. The FDA explained that some modern “low fat” french dressings actually violate the standards of identity established in the 1950s, which require french dressing to be at least 35% vegetable oil.

In both cases, the cherry pie and french dressing, the idea of change was a big theme. The standards of identity were established decades ago, and since then consumer ideas and manufacturing processes have both changed considerably. Groups like the ABA and ADS feel the guidelines should keep up with the times and put consumer choices first.

Not everyone agrees. Marion Nestle, a professor of food studies and public health at New York University, explained to the New York Times that , “ They want to do it because they want less fat than what’s in the standard of identity, and they want to put more junk in it.”

Our closing thoughts? We proffer the following. One, if you feel passionately that ingredients should reflect an item’s name, read the package label before you buy. And two: In a Covid-ravaged world, it’s comforting to know that these types of concerns, regardless of their import or lack thereof, are still out there.

Sabrina Emms is a science journalist. She got her start as an intern at a health and science podcast out of Philadelphia public radio. Before that she worked as a researcher, looking at the way bones are formed. When out of the lab and away from her computer, she's moonlighted as a pig vet's assistant and a bagel baker.