As we pointed out in our piece on food label lies, food is often labeled as if it's medicine, claiming extraordinary health benefits that are typically associated with pharmaceuticals. Healthy nutritious eating is certainly important, but it's often the case that the foods with the least packaging (fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, etc.) are the most nutritious, while those emblazoned with loud health claims are sometimes two parts marketing to every one part nutrition.
The latest controversy in this line is embodied by a lawsuit from the Center for Science in the Public Interest against Coca Cola, over the labeling of its Vitamin Water. The basic question: Does the product lives up to its name? True, it does have vitamins... but, CSPI points out, those vitamins are drowned in something closer to soda than water: A standard 16-ounce bottle of Vitamin Water has 26 grams of sugar (13 grams per serving). That is less than soda (a standard 8-ounce can of coke has 39 grams of sugar) but unless you'd typically add six teaspoons before downing a pint of water, Vitamin Water strays toward the soda side of the beverage spectrum.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest calls the beverage's marketing "deceptive and unsubstantiated" because "the company claims that Vitamin Water variously reduces the risk of chronic disease, reduces the risk of eye disease, promotes healthy joints, and supports optimal immune function, and uses health buzz words such as 'defense,' 'rescue,' 'energy,' and 'endurance' on labels." Using healthy words on the packages of junk food is prohibited by the so-called "Jelly Bean rule," which requires a food to be not only fortified with nutrients but also low in fat and sugar before it can be labeled as "healthy."
A judge recently decided to let the case be heard, rejecting a motion by Coca Cola to dismiss the case.
Related: Home Soda Maker Review
The Food and Drug Administration has, of late, been taking a tougher stand on nutritional claims on foods, particularly when they cross the legal line between food and drug marketing. Kellogg, for instance, have stopped claiming that sugary kid cereals boost the immune system, or ease joint pain. Here are 22 food nutritional marketing claims that could be illegal they're so egregious.
Whether Coke's marketing is within the bounds of the law remains to be determined. Until then, it's up to consumers to weigh the costs and benefits of drinking a sugary but vitamin-enriched drink. And it reminds us that reading the back of the label is more enlightening than reading the marketing on the front of the package. (Which in this case is a plastic bottle.)
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