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Judge Says Vitaminwater Might Be Fattening: Why Doesn't Coke Understand the "Jelly Bean Rule"?

A class action lawsuit claiming Vitaminwater falsely advertised that it could prevent "age-related eye disease" can go ahead, a federal judge has ruled, adding Coca-Cola (KO) to the list of corporate titans who just don't seem to understand the way U.S. law applies to products that claim a health benefit.

Coke and its Glaceau unit's promotion of Vitaminwater has been cynical, to put it politely. Most people think the drink contains water and vitamins. But if you read the ruling, and look at the drink's ingredient and nutrition labels, it's pretty clear that Vitaminwater would be more truthfully marketed as Sugarwater. Vitaminwater has 33 grams of sugar in each bottle. (Trust Coke to find a way to make water fattening!)

The suit is going ahead because a judge found that Coke had made health claims in its promotion for Vitaminwater that were potentially misleading. Among them:

... scientific evidence suggests may reduce the risk of age-related eye disease.

... specially formulated with bioactive components that contribute to an active lifestyle by promoting healthy, pain-free functioning of joints, structural integrity of joints and bones, and optimal generation and utilization of energy from food.

The FDA actually prohibits health claims being made for products that have either been indiscriminately fortified with nutrients or that may lack certain bad ingredients. (This is the so-called "jelly bean rule": it prevents the makers of jelly beans claiming they're low in fat. Jelly beans are low in fat, but that's not the point.) Similarly, Coke seems not to have understood -- and most Vitaminwater drinkers certainly don't understand -- that dumping vitamins into sugar water does not make it a health drink.

Coke's error is one of a number committed by major advertisers who ought to know better when it comes to nutrition claims:

The law on health claims for nutrition and diet supplement products isn't that complicated. If I can understand it, then the general counsel's office at Coke sure ought to be able to. Which makes me suspect these companies were simply calculating that they could make more on revenue from selling these drinks with their false claims than they'd lose when they finally got caught.

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Image by Flickr user lovecycle, CC.