Industry News | January 15, 2009

Coke's VitaminWater Under Legal Fire

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The Coca-Cola Company has been served notice of a class action lawsuit filed over what the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says are deceptive and unsubstantiated claims on its VitaminWater line of beverages.

Coke markets VitaminWater as a healthful alternative to soda by using labeling with health buzz words such as “defense,” “rescue,” “energy,” and “endurance.” The company makes a wide range of health-related claims, including that its drinks reduce the risk of chronic disease, reduce the risk of eye disease, promote healthy joints, and support optimal immune function.

According to CSPI nutritionists, the 33 grams of sugar in each bottle of VitaminWater do more to promote obesity, diabetes, and other health problems than the vitamins in the drinks do to perform the advertised benefits listed on the bottles.

“When I bought VitaminWater, frankly I thought I was doing myself a favor health-wise,” says the plaintiff, San Francisco, California, resident James Koh, who used to purchase and drink VitaminWater after working out at the gym. “I was attracted by the prospect of getting extra vitamins. But I had no idea that I was actually getting almost a Coke’s worth of sugar and calories. There’s no way I would have spent money on that, had I known.”

VitaminWater’s Web site, marketing copy, and labels claim that VitaminWater is healthy. For example, “balance cran-grapefruit” has “bioactive components” that promote “healthy, pain-free functioning of joints." Likewise, the nutrients in “power-c dragonfruit” “enable the body to exert physical power by contributing to the structural integrity of the musculoskeletal system.”

While vitamins do play various roles in the human body, the statements on VitaminWater labels go far beyond the loose “structure/function claims” allowed by the Food and Drug Administration and cross the line into fraud, according to CSPI.

VitaminWater contains between zero and one percent juice, despite the full names of the drinks, which include “endurance peach mango,” “focus kiwi strawberry,” and “xxx blueberry pomegranate acai,” among others. A press release for the “xxx” drink claims its antioxidants make the drinker “last longer” in some unspecified way; it has no blueberry, pomegranate, or acai juice, nor do the others have any cranberry, grapefruit, dragon fruit, peach, mango, kiwi, or strawberry juice.

“VitaminWater is Coke’s attempt to dress up soda in a physician’s white coat," says CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. "Underneath, it’s still sugar water.”

CSPI’s litigation department is serving as co-counsel in the suit, filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California. The other law firms involved in the case are Reese Richman LLP and Whatley Drake & Kallas, LLC.