My favorite controversial organization, The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is staying quite busy these days advocating for consumers against deceitful marketing of unhealthful foods and food products to the public. The latest is a class-action lawsuit filed against Coca-Cola for the misleading health claims boasted by their “VitaminWater” that it promotes health and can help prevent various chronic diseases. CSPI calls these claims “deceptive and unsubstantiated.”
Coke motioned to dismiss the lawsuit, but a New York judge refused to do so, finding that Coke has in fact violated several FDA regulations. The CSPI’s major contention is with the misleading name of the product. To call it “VitaminWater” implies the product contains only vitamins and water, when it actually and more importantly, contains quite a bit of sugar, which the name incidentally fails to mention. The judge does not seem to look fondly upon naming some ingredients while ignoring more prominent ones. In addition to the misleading name of the product VitaminWater claims to reduce the risk of chronic disease and eye disease, and promote healthy joints and immune function.
Coke argued that because they disclose the sugar content on the label, consumers are not being misled. The court refuted that “reasonable consumers should [not] be expected to look beyond misleading representations on the front of the box to discover the truth from the ingredient list in small print on the side of the box.”
So what are the FDA regulations on health claims? The grocery store is riddled with foods that seem to often be unhealthier than meets the eye. Where is the line drawn legally? In 1990 the National Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) was passed to regulate health claims, specifying 12 specific areas in which claims are approved by the FDA, with the provision that more may be approved as discoveries are made in nutrition science.
Labeling claims under the NLEA must be very specific. For example, an item cannot be called “reduced” (in fat, saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol, or calories) unless it is nutritionally altered to contain at least 25% less of the nutrient. A food item that is labeled as “Lite” must contain 1/3 fewer calories or half the fat of the original food. If the food contains 50% or more calories from fat, the reduction must be 50%.
With regard to reducing the risk of chronic disease or specific ailments, a health claim must be made through a third-party reference (ex: American Heart Association). It cannot claim to absolutely reduce the risk of disease but must state that the food item “may” or “might” reduce risk, and must indicate other factors that play a role in risk reduction (ex: “along with a healthy diet”)
An example of an acceptable health claim might read “Among other factors that affect the risk of heart disease, a low-fat diet may also reduce your risk.” Thus VitaminWater’s claims are not sitting well with CSPI and many others now that light has been shed on the issue.
My opinion: Most people who taste VitaminWater would probably notice it tastes sweet and many may then read the label and take notice of the sugar content. But in my experience, most people, even the ones who do read lables, are at least a little foggy on what to make of what they read. They may notice a product contians sugar yet not know if the amount listed is considered a little or a lot. Combine that with the fact that the product is named and marketed as a health product, consumers may overlook or underestimate the amount of sugar the product contains. When consumers are bombarded with a message over and over that a product is healthy and popular, and the sugar content is largely ignored, the consumer ultimately is prone to ignoring it as well. This sort of marketing thereby enables the rise of obesity and chronic disease in America. I discuss the same concept in “Donut Advertising…Gone Too Far?” http://www.nutritionresolution.com/2010/01/donut-advertising-gone-too-far/
There is far too much false advertising and misleading information put forth, especially when it comes to food products, diet, and exercise. Many clients come to me so confused they no longer know up from down. It is unreasonable to expect the average person to know enough on the topic of nutrition to sift through all the labeling tricks and verbiage to get to the truth. Albeit controversial at times, I support the CSPI wholeheartedly in their efforts to reduce this labeling smut by holding companies responsible for what they advertise.
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