Vitaminwater Label, Name Misleading, Judge Tells Coca-Cola


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Coca-Cola owns the Glaceau vitaminwater brand
Coca-Cola owns the Glaceau vitaminwater brand

When drinking Glaceau vitaminwater, consumers tend to believe it's an essentially healthful beverage, said a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, who rejected brand owner Coca-Cola's motion to dismiss the lawsuit brought last year by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Judge John Gleeson "took note of the fact that the FDA frowns upon names of products that mention some ingredients to the exclusion of more prominent ingredients such as, in the case of vitaminwater, added sugar," the CSPI said in a press release last week.

Reinforcing Mistaken Beliefs

Both the name "vitaminwater" and the names of the individual flavors -- such as "defense," "energy" and "revive" -- have "the potential to reinforce a consumer's mistaken belief that the product is comprised of only vitamins and water," Gleeson said in his opinion.

Most potentially troubling for Coca-Cola (KO) is the assertion by Gleeson that use of the word "healthy" in product labeling violates the Food and Drug Administration's regulations on vitamin-fortified foods. Coca-Cola, says Gleeson, is "making health claims about vitaminwater even though it does not meet required minimum nutritional thresholds."

Coca-Cola, in its motion to dismiss, had argued that simply listing the sugar among the ingredients on its label was sufficient disclosure, but Gleeson found this was not enough, using as an example the images of fruit on Gerber's Fruit Juice Snacks, which were found to be misleading in an earlier case, given that the ingredients were mostly corn syrup and sugar.

CSPI called the decision a victory, describing its planned next steps in the lawsuit as deposing Coca-Cola executives and proceeding with document discovery. CSPI's litigation director, Steve Gardner, launched his arguments early, saying "Coca-Cola has been exploiting Americans' desire to eat and drink more healthfully by deceiving them into thinking that vitaminwater can actually prevent disease."

Responding to Consumer Demand?

As the CSPI considers another lawsuit against McDonald's (MCD), seeking the removal of toys in Happy Meals (but, so far, not the use of the word "happy," even though the consumption of junk food has been shown to be correlated with depression), Coca-Cola has launched into its marketing of vitaminwaterZERO, a "naturally sweetened" no-calorie water drink. Its flavors include names like "go-go," "recoup," "rise" and "squeezed" -- evocative of the health benefits, perhaps, but not so boldly stated as the vitaminwater flavors included in the lawsuit.

Whether these products are part of ongoing strategy in response to consumer demands for more healthful vitamin-fortified water drinks or a safe haven to retreat to should the lawsuit eventually go against the company's $4.2 billion brand, is anyone's guess. It's probably some of each.

If it were my decision, I would retreat to Glaceau's original "fruitwater" product, which was much simpler and not sweetened at all. The health claims were nil, and the product, in my opinion, was vastly superior. But in 2010, it seems, misleading health claims are far more lucrative than mere deliciousness.

Originally published