VitaminWater Health-Claim Lesson: Read Labels

A consumer group is suing over the drink's nutritional claims.

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Bottles of VitaminWater in a display case.

Coca-Cola's line of VitaminWater drinks is not healthful, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is suing the beverage company for what it calls deceptive and unsubstantiated claims. We'll leave the legal and rhetorical battles to CSPI and Coke (which, for its part, calls the suit "ridiculous" and says VitaminWater is "clearly and properly labeled"). But whether VitaminWater is breaking consumer protection laws or just engaging in effective marketing, the situation does offer a great lesson in the importance of reading nutrition labels.

Let's take as an example the flavor of VitaminWater called "XXX." On the label facing me on the deli shelf, I saw the words "acai-blueberry-pomegranate (triple antioxidants)." Farther down, it said that the drink has the "power of triple antioxidants to help keep you healthy and fight free radicals." And lower down, ". . . it is definitely au naturel." If I read no further, I might make some assumptions: 1) VitaminWater is some kind of water plus vitamins, and thus, like water, must not have many calories. 2) This particular flavor contains acai, blueberry, and pomegranate (all of which have been called "superfoods" for their nutritional punch). 3) Those fruits contain antioxidants, which are substances in fruits and veggies that are associated with lower rates of chronic disease. By drinking VitaminWater, I'm getting those benefits. And 4) VitaminWater is "natural."

However, if I took the time to flip over the bottle and read the actual nutrition label and list of ingredients before taking it up to the cash register and buying it, I'd likely question those assumptions. The reality: 1) VitaminWater contains 50 calories per 8-ounce serving. That's about 6 calories per fluid ounce, which is about half the calorie count of regular Coke. However, VitaminWater comes in a 20-ounce bottle, which brings the calorie count for one bottle to 125 calories. Most people can fit 125 calories into their diet, but it may mean kicking out some other treat. And it is a treat; those calories come entirely from the 32.5 grams of sugar present in each bottle. 2) There is no acai, blueberry, or pomegranate juice in the drink. (Right above the nutrition label it says "contains less than 1 percent juice.") It does have "berry and fruit extracts," which presumably account for the vitamin C and polyphenols listed on the label. Those are among the antioxidants found in fruits. 3) While a diet rich in antioxidants has been associated with lower rates of chronic disease, those associations have not been borne out in recent trials that gave antioxidants to people in supplement form. Nutritionists have noted that protection against disease, if it exists, may come from thousands of compounds working together rather than one key nutrient in a carrot (or in this case, an acai berry). The best way to make sure you get any benefits from antioxidants or other helpful chemicals: Eat them in their natural state, in whole fruits and veggies. And 4) Saying that a food is "natural" is meaningless when it comes to health. The salmonella bacteria currently poisoning people across the country is technically "natural," since it is alive and does indeed come from nature, but you wouldn't want to ingest it.

The point is not that VitaminWater is to be avoided; everyone has to make her own decision about what to eat, given her own nutritional needs and cravings. But don't base your decisions on front-of-the-package labeling or marketing copy; read the official nutrition label for the real scoop.