Dannon, Coca-Cola, You Guys Have Some Nerve!

Last Updated Feb 23, 2011 6:55 PM EST

I'm only just now recovering from learning the truth about Dannon's Activia yogurt last month. According to the Federal Trade Commission, the company had no business claiming that a serving a day of Activia would save people from the evil of constipation -- or as TV spokesceleb Jamie Lee Curtis more politely put it, "occasional irregularity."

Be still my tummy!

As it turns out, two clinical studies that Dannon cited on its website to back up its claims only tested how well elderly subjects did when they ate varying amounts of Activia. The company failed to mention that no statistical significance in "transit time" (the speed of digestion) was achieved when the results of a placebo group employed in the studies were compared to those of the group eating Activia. Oh and Dannon didn't bother to bring up several other studies that produced similar non-results. In other words, ingesting Activia might not have made you any more regular than eating Buffalo chicken wings, grapefruit or Puppy Chow. Dannon admitted no wrongdoing but paid $21 million to 39 attorneys general involved in the investigation and agreed to shut up about regularity unless it points out that you need to eat three servings a day for the product to have the desired effect.
Dannon is not the first or last food company making outlandish health claims for its products.

Take vitaminwater, manufactured by glacéau, a Coca-Cola subsidiary. (Don't ask me why neither the company nor its product is capitalized; I guess capital letters are no longer hip.)

For starters, a poster for three varieties of vitaminwater proclaims "flu shots are so last year." Under an illustration of the three bottles are three captions: "more vitamin C; more immunity; less snotty tissues." (I hate to have to correct you again, Coca Cola, but that should be fewer snotty tissues.) A TV commercial depicts a woman who has piled up enough unused sick days to loll at home. "I love skipping work," she says. "Layin' in my p.j.'s searching Netflix for a guilty pleasure marathon. And since it's Friday, I've got a nice little three-day staycation package. One of my secrets? vitaminwater power c. It's got vitamin C and zinc to help support a healthy immune system. So I can stay at home with my boyfriend â€"- who's also playing hooky."

In a formal complaint to the FTC, The National Consumers League rightfully disputed the "dangerously misleading" assertion that vitaminwater protects you from the flu. Believe me, if vitamins prevented flu, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health agencies would be urging you to take them by the jarful. But they recommend vaccination -- with good reason. "The flu is a virus, it's something that's contagious and you cannot take vitamins to prevent yourself from getting the flu," said Dr. Greg Holzman, chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Community Health, who is quoted in the Grand Rapids Press. "I'm kind of disappointed in Coca Cola."

You and me both, doc. I think the Department of Labor should also investigate Coca Cola for encouraging malingering in that TV commercial. But I digress.

The flu is hardly "last year." The CDC recently sent reporters an email warning that flu season may extend into May; those who haven't received a vaccination (either a shot or a dose via nasal spray) should get it. "More than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications each year," says the CDC. "The flu can also be deadly. Between 1976 and 2007, CDC estimates that annual flu-associated deaths in the United States have ranged from a low of about 3,000 people to a high of about 49,000 people."

Now I know that there are those who will say, "Oh the CDC is in league with big vaccine companies to boost their sales." But Coca Cola is not exactly a struggling upstart, and vitaminwater raked in (or soaked up) $700 million in revenues last year, according to ABC News.

Here's another little fact: vitaminwater's label says, "vitamins + water = all you need." You have to look at Nutrition Facts to learn that it has 125 calories, most of them sugar. (Only the sugar-free variation is calorie free.) So while you glug down 20-ounce bottles of vitaminwater in vain hope of fending off the flu, your hips will be growing wider than the U.S.S. Intrepid.

A federal court judge in New York already refused to dismiss a lawsuit by the Center for Science in the Public Interest contending that vitaminwater's claims -- that the stuff reduces the risk of chronic diseases and promotes healthy joints -- are bogus and violate Food and Drug Administration regulations. How? "By making health claims about vitaminwater even though it does not meet required minimum nutritional thresholds, by using the word 'healthy' in implied nutrient content claims even though vitaminwater's fortification does not comply with FDA policy, and by using a product name that references only two of vitaminwater's ingredients, omitting the fact that there is a key, unnamed ingredient [sugar] in the product," wrote Judge John Gleeson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Consumers could also be misled, he said, by the label on the front of the bottle suggesting the product is water and vitamins even though the company discloses sugar content on the back.

Coca Cola declared the lawsuit "ridiculous and ludicrous." Those two words would be more appropriate descriptions of its silly product.