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Coca-Cola’s argument in “vitaminwater” lawsuit is exhibit 1 for corporate chutzpah

You’ve got to love the sheer audacity of processed food manufacturers. I mean, just how dumb do they think we consumers are? (OK.

You’ve got to love the sheer audacity of processed food manufacturers. I mean, just how dumb do they think we consumers are? (OK. Bad question.)

Take Coca-Cola.(And I guess we should give it equal time; after all, we focused on its rival, PepsiCo, in this space last week.) Here’s Coca-Cola’s latest chutzpah moment, as described by food activist John Robbins in his HuffingtonPost blog last Friday:

Coca-Cola is being sued by a non-profit public interest group, on the grounds that the company’s vitaminwater products make unwarranted health claims. No surprise there. But how do you think the company is defending itself?
In a staggering feat of twisted logic, lawyers for Coca-Cola are defending the lawsuit by asserting that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitaminwater was a healthy beverage.”
Does this mean that you’d have to be an unreasonable person to think that a product named “vitaminwater,” a product that has been heavily and aggressively marketed as a healthy beverage, actually had health benefits?
Or does it mean that it’s okay for a corporation to lie about its products, as long as they can then turn around and claim that no one actually believes their lies?

Last month a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York rejected Coca-Cola’s request for dismissal of the class action lawsuit that Robbins refers to. In his ruling, [PDF] Judge John Gleeson said that naming the beverage “vitaminwater” and calling its flavors names like “energy,” “revive,” and “defense” has “the potential to reinforce a consumer’s mistaken belief that the product is composed of only vitamins and water.”

Ya think?

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Here’s a statement from the label of vitaminwater’s “focus” flavor: “specially formulated to provide vitamin [A] (a nutrient known to be required for visual function), antioxidants and other nutrients [that] scientific evidence suggests may reduce the risk of age-related eye disease.”

We’re supposed to believe that Coca-Cola’s intention with that label wasn’t to have consumers think the product was good for them?

Furthermore — and this is apparently the more serious matter for Coca-Cola — Judge Gleeson ruled that by using the word healthy in its product labeling, Coca-Cola may be breeching U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations by “making health claims about vitaminwater even though it does not meet required minimum nutritional thresholds.”

In reality, of course, Coca-Cola’s vitaminwater is essentially sugar water with some added vitamins. Adding the vitamins to the sugar water doesn’t make it good for you, just as  adding vitamins to a Snickers candy bar wouldn’t make it good for you.*

Coca-Cola’s vitaminwater products may not contain as much sugar as some of its soft drinks, but it still contains 33 grams per 20-oz. bottle.

As Robbins points out in his blog post, a 2009 Johns Hopkins University study found “that the quickest and most reliable way to lose weight is to cut down on liquid calorie consumption. And the best way to do that is to reduce or eliminate beverages that contain added sugar.”

Robbins (author of “Diet for a New America” and his latest, “The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less”) has some practical suggestions for people who are thirsty:

[T]ry drinking water. If you want to flavor the water you drink, try adding the juice of a lemon and a small amount of honey or maple syrup to a quart of water. Another alternative is to mix one part lemonade or fruit juice to three or four parts water. Or drink green tea, hot or chilled, adding lemon and a small amount of sweetener if you like. If you want to jazz it up, try one-half fruit juice, one-half carbonated water.
If your tap water tastes bad or you suspect it might contain lead or other contaminants, get a water filter that fits under the sink or attaches to the tap.

And if it’s vitamins you’re after, then get them the very best way possible: Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Several times a day. Day after day. Research is increasingly showing that vitamin supplements are worthless, except in specific cases — during pregnancy, for example, or when someone has pellagra, rickets, scurvy or other vitamin-deficiency diseases (which are rare in the United States and other developed countries). In fact, supplements may even do more harm than good.

* As I was proofing this piece before posting it, I decided I should check to see if Mars Inc. had added vitamins to Snickers. Lo and behold, I discovered Snickers Charged, which, according to its makers, “provides a boost of energy with caffeine, taurine and B-vitamins.” Sigh.