Coca-Cola under fire again -- but labels lawsuit "ludicrous"

A US pressure group has slapped a lawsuit on the Coca-Cola Company arguing it is making "unsubstantiated claims" for its Glacéau Vitaminwater health drinks.

The organisation said it was "seeking redress" on behalf of residents of California for "deceptive practices in misrepresenting the nutritional content and health benefits of…Vitaminwater" under the State's consumer protection laws. The suit has been filed in US District Court in the Northern District of California.

The beverages in the 15-strong Vitaminwater range incorporate a variety of vitamins and functional ingredients — including zinc, ecgc, theanine and ribose — and are marketed using names such as 'defense', 'rescue', 'b-relaxed' and 'endurance.'

But the CSPI said: "Coke markets Vitaminwater as a healthful alternative to soda by labelling its several flavours with health buzz words. The company makes a wide range of dramatic claims, including that its drinks variously reduce the risk of chronic disease, reduce the risk of eye disease, promote healthy joints and support optimal immune function.

"While it is true that vitamins do play various roles in the human body, the statements on Vitaminwater labels go far beyond even the loose, so-called 'structure/function claims' allowed by the Food and Drug Administration and cross the line into outright fraud."

The CSPI also cited the sugar content of Vitaminwater drinks in the lawsuit. It claimed: "The 33g 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."

But the Coca-Cola Company branded the lawsuit "ridiculous and ludicrous."

"Glacéau Vitaminwater is a great tasting, hydrating beverage with essential vitamins and water, with labels showing calorie content," it said. "Filing a lawsuit is an opportunistic PR stunt. This is not about protecting the public interest. This is about grandstanding at a time when CSPI is receiving very little attention. Consumers can readily see the nutrition facts panels on every bottle of Glacéau Vitaminwater, which show what's in our product and what's not."

The CSPI's lawsuit comes after the US Food & Drug Administration wrote to Coca-Cola Company in December requesting it change the labelling of its vitamin and mineral enriched Diet Coke Plus drink.

The agency told the company the beverage did not contain high enough levels of vitamins and minerals to warrant the use on the product's labelling of the term 'Plus' in conjunction with the phrase "Diet Coke with vitamins and minerals".

In the letter, addressed to Coca-Cola president and CEO Muhtar Kent, FDA director of compliance Roberta Wagner said the agency believed the product breached the US Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act because it "makes a nutrient content claim but does not meet the criteria to make the claim".

"Your product is misbranded within the meaning of… the Act because it bears the nutrient content claim 'plus' but does not comply with the regulations governing the use of this claim," she wrote."The term 'plus' in Diet Coke Plus, read in conjunction with the language 'Diet Coke with Vitamins & Minerals', meets the definition of a nutrient content claim because it characterises the product's level of vitamins and minerals.

"The term 'plus'… may be used on the label or in labelling of foods to describe the level of nutrients (such as vitamins and minerals) in the food, provided that the food contains at least 10% more of the Reference Daily Intake or Daily Reference Value for the nutrient per reference amount customarily consumed than an appropriate reference food."

The FDA also took issue with Coca-Cola's decision to launch a fizzy drink fortified with nutrients. "Your product Diet Coke Plus is a carbonated beverage… The FDA does not consider it appropriate to fortify snack foods such as carbonated beverages," Wagner wrote.

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