7 Marketing Claims That Took Heat

Deceptive advertising? Products promise health benefits that are inflated or not supported by science.


Vitaminwater. In July, a federal judge upheld a lawsuit filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group, accusing the Coca-Cola Co. of making deceptive, unsubstantiated claims. Health-related buzz words like "defense," "rescue," "energy," and "endurance," got Coca-Cola in trouble, along with claims that Vitaminwater could reduce the risk of chronic disease, promote healthy joints, and bolster the immune system. The judge noted that Vitaminwater's most visible front labels only mention some of its ingredients while excluding others that are more prominent—like sugar. That labeling, coupled with the high-recognition brand name, could "reinforce a consumer's mistaken belief that the product is comprised of only vitamins and water," the judge concluded. The case is slated to go to trial.

[Read: 5 Food Package Claims That Deserve a Double Take.]

Nestlé BOOST Kid Essentials. Between 2008 and 2009, Nestlé HealthCare Nutrition TV and print ads claimed that BOOST Kid Essentials, a children's drink, strengthened the immune system, prevented upper respiratory tract infections, protected against colds and flu, and reduced absences from daycare or school. Those claims, the FTC said, did not withstand scientific scrutiny. In July, Nestlé agreed to no longer promote the product in such ways.

Airborne. The popular supplement, a combination of vitamins, antioxidants, and herbal extracts, was once touted as a way to prevent and cure colds. But in 2006, ABC News revealed it was only tested in one clinical trial, conducted by two people lacking scientific or medical training. The FTC charged the company with deceptive advertising and making unproven claims, and in 2008, Airborne Health paid a fine of $30 million to settle the case. That same year, CSPI also settled a class-action lawsuit against Airborne that had been filed in 2006. The settlement was for $23.3 million in refunds to consumers. "Airborne is basically an overpriced, run-of-the-mill vitamin pill that's been cleverly, but deceptively, marketed," CSPI senior nutritionist David Schardt said in a statement released in 2008 by the group.

[Read: Nutritional Labeling Gets More Sophisticated.]

Enviga. Both Coca-Cola and Nestlé came under fire in 2007 for claiming that this green tea-flavored soft drink has "negative calories" and promotes weight loss. Each 12-ounce can was said to burn up to 100 calories, due largely to its high caffeine content. CSPI sued Coca-Cola and Nestlé, which jointly manufacture and market the product, and Connecticut's attorney general launched an investigation into the its purported calorie-burning properties. After reaching a settlement in 2009, Coca-Cola agreed to stop making overt weight loss claims. The Enviga website now states that the drink is not a guaranteed weight loss solution and that diet and exercise are important, too. The calorie-burning claims, however, remain.

Gerber fruit juice snacks. For years, Gerber promoted its "fruit juice snacks" (now called "juice treats") with images of oranges, cherries, and strawberries, implying that the gummies were made from real fruit. The U.S. Court of Appeals last year ruled that such marketing was deceptive, since the product's leading ingredients were—and still are—high-fructose corn syrup and sugar. Consumers should not be "expected to look beyond misleading representations on the front of the box to discover the truth from the ingredient list in small print on the side of the box," stated the court.

[Read: 10 Things the Food Industry Doesn't Want You to Know.]