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Vitaminwater: Not So Healthy After All

Q: What has 33 grams of sugar and is marketed to the gullible American consumer as containing nothing but vitamins and water?  

Not only is the drink marketed as “Vitamin Water,” but one of its prominent advertising/packaging slogans is “vitamins + water = all you need.” Surprise! Like many things sold by the Coca-Cola Company, it is full of sugar and calories, you might as well just have a coke and a smile.

But this has not gone unnoticed.  Last week, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson, Eastern District of New York, denied Coca-Cola’s motion to dismiss a class-action lawsuit brought primarily by the Center for Science In The Public Interest (CSPI), which alleged various state and federal claims of unfair competition, false advertising and deceptive business practices. 

Notably, Coca-Cola argued that claims of the health benefits of its product (e.g., “vitamins + water = all you need”) were mere “puffery,”  meaning inflated statements used to advertise a product that cannot actually be believed to be true (“come in for America’s best hamburger !”), which are not actionable under these sorts of laws.  It would seem clear to even the casual observor that there is a difference  between touting the health benefits of your product named “Vitaminwater” and claiming “America’s best hamburger.”  And Judge Gleeson agreed:

By including the suggestion that the product will “keep you healthy” or “help bring about a healthy state of physical and mental being” alongside such statements, the quoted language implies that the nutrient content of vitaminwater may help consumers maintain healthy dietary practices. I conclude, therefore, in light of the language and context in which they are used, that the statements on the “defense” and “B- Relaxed” labels constitute implied nutrient content claims which use the word “healthy.” Such claims are in violation of violation of FDA regulations because . . . vitaminwater achieves its nutritional content solely through fortification that violates FDA policy.

CSPI explains further in their press release:

[T]he company’s use of the word “healthy” violates the Food and Drug Administration’s regulations on vitamin-fortified foods. The FDA’s so-called “Jelly Bean” rule prohibits companies from making health claims on junk foods that only meet various nutrient thresholds via fortification. The judge also found that vitaminwater’s claim on the “focus” flavor of vitaminwater that it “may reduce the risk of age-related eye disease” runs afoul of FDA regulations.

 . . . .

The judge also rejected Coke’s argument that disclosing sugar content on Nutrition Facts labels eliminates the possibility that consumers may be misled into thinking the product has only water and vitamins, and little or no sugar. Gleeson cited a similar case involving deceptive fruit imagery on packages for Gerber’s Fruit Juice Snacks, which are mostly corn syrup and sugar. That court held 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.”

The case will, of course, proceed toward trial, and will likely get quickly settled before it generates further bad publicity for Coca-Cola and Vitaminwater.  The lesson is very clearly this:

Just because it looks like water and claims to contain vitamins, it doesn’t mean it is health food.  You are much better off drinking a glass of water and taking a vitamin supplement, and you will save a lot of money, too (and produce less garbage).

You may look at the nutritional information on a bottle of Vitaminwater and read that it only contains 50 calories per serving.  But read the fine print further, there are 2.5 servings per bottle, so you are in fact consuming 125 calories (of course, when it comes to disclosing the daily recommended dose of vitamins you are getting, they list the whole bottle).

Of course, selling people junk on the pretense that it will make them healthier is part of the Great American Tradition (Smoothie King and makers of the “Ab Roller,” I’m looking at you).  Now, you may have reservations about people filing class-action law suits when they really should have just used their common sense (and read the fine print), but that is part of the Great American Tradition too.

Relatedly, CSPI is bringing a second lawsuit against Coca-Cola, based on the company’s marketing of its Enviga green tea beverage which it claims to have “negative calories,” thus promoting weight loss just by merely ingesting it.  Imagine that!

  1. J. Frankfurter
    August 18, 2010 at 3:53 PM

    Well, the problem is that they are apparently marketing it as a health drink. And they are doing it to expand the product’s appeal beyond sports drink consumers (who are probably drinking gatorade).

  2. August 12, 2010 at 6:09 PM

    The thing is, these should be considered a sports drink, like gatorade. In the middle of intense activity, you definitely need a drink like this to keep from losing energy. It also has lots of electrolytes and minerals, and plenty of salt, which will keep you from dying of hyponatremia (basically drowning yourself in water by not taking in enough salt). And I’m pretty sure it does all that with less sugar than gatorade. It’s definitely not a health drink, but for people who are active, this stuff is essential.

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