NBTY to refund $2.1 million in FTC settlement

Why would the largest U.S. supplement manufacturer mislead consumers over the DHA content in its Winnie the Pooh and Spider-Man multivitamins? In the end, no one benefits—especially not the company or its customers.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s crusade against “bogus health claims” focused in on supplement manufacturer NBTY Inc. and two of its subsidiaries for what the agency called deceptive claims made for the companies’ children’s vitamins. In a settlement reached Dec. 13 with the FTC, NBTY and its NatureSmart LLC and Rexall Sundown Inc. subsidiaries agreed to refund $2.1 million to consumers who bought certain multivitamins in the companies’ Disney and Marvel Heroes lines.

What triggered the FTC action? The companies’ claims regarding the DHA amount found in its multivitamin gummies and tablets, as well unsupported claims that a daily serving of the products promotes “healthy brain and eye development in children,” according to the FTC administrative complaint.

“Product packaging and print ads promoting the vitamins had bold graphics highlighting that the products contained DHA, but in reality, the products allegedly had only a trace amount of DHA,” the FTC wrote in a Dec. 13 press release about the settlement. “While the vitamins’ packaging touted the purported health benefits of 100 milligrams of DHA, a daily serving of the Disney and Marvel multivitamins for children ages four years and older contained only one thousandth of that amount (0.1 mg or 100 mcg).”

As part of the settlement, NBTY, NatureSmart and Rexall Sundown are barred from misrepresenting the amount of any ingredient contained in their products and from misrepresenting that any ingredient, including DHA, promotes brain or eye health or provides any other health benefit, unless the claim is true and backed by competent and reliable scientific evidence.

NBTY responded to the settlement by stating: This resolution reaffirms our commitment to labeling transparency and adherence to the highest standards of regulatory compliance. It also allows us to continue to focus on providing high-quality nutritional supplements that help improve health and quality of life for millions of customers nationwide.”

Pixie dust dosing in supplements

The question here is: Why would the largest U.S. supplement manufacturer mislead consumers over the DHA content in its Winnie the Pooh and Spider-Man multivitamins?

Parents have been coached over the last several years about the health benefits associated with omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA. So when they see the word “DHA” emblazoned on kids’ multivitamin package, along with information touting the health benefits of 100 milligrams of DHA, they are obviously going to assume the product contains 100 milligrams of DHA per serving—and it’s likely they will choose to pay more for the DHA multivitamin over a cheaper, non-DHA multi.

Such misleading advertising regarding the nutritional content of a product is unfortunately nothing new, but one usually sees such tactics used for functional foods and beverages—not dietary supplements.

Both the FTC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have been cracking down on misleading label claims over the past several years. Consumers and  their lawyers are also getting in on the action through pricy class action lawsuits, such as the $35 million one Dannon settled in September 2009 over labeling for its Activia and DanActive yogurts.

As Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Nutrition Business Journal earlier this year, “If [a] product has so little ingredient in it that it doesn’t matter, or if it makes exaggerated claims on the label, it hits the consumer pocketbook hard, and it debases the integrity of the entire food label.”

Of course, the same goes for dietary supplements.

Read the FTC release about the NBTY settlement and NBJ’s report on pixie-dust dosing in the functional food and beverage market (NBJ subscription required).

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