Is Vitaminwater Really a Healthy Drink?

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Mark Lennihan / AP

Bottles of Vitaminwater at a New York City convenience store

Over the past few years, an increasing number of worn-out consumers have reached for a bottle of Vitaminwater after a workout. The sports drink has emerged as a serious competitor to Gatorade and other noncarbonated beverages, so much so that Coca-Cola forked over $4.2 billion in cash to buy the brand from Glaceau back in 2007. On its July 21 earnings call, Coke CEO Muhtar Kent was particularly bullish about Vitaminwater, which is now being sold in 15 markets worldwide, including France, China and South Africa.

But do some of these weekend warriors think they're just getting a healthy mix of vitamins and water, as the name of the product implies, when they chug that sweet drink? Probably so. But they're getting more: 33 grams of sugar and 125 calories, for every 20-ounce bottle. Hey, where's the sugar in the name?

Such mixed-message marketing has caused one food-health advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), to lead a class action claiming that Coca-Cola is violating consumer-protection laws with its Vitaminwater brand. According to CSPI nutritionists, Vitaminwater's sugar content more than offsets any advertised health benefits provided by the nutrients in the drink. "They added vitamins to crap," says Stephen Gardner, chief litigator for CSPI. "And it's still crap. Consumers shouldn't have to assume that the front of a label is a lie. You cannot deceive in the big print and tell the truth later."

The group achieved a victory last week, when a federal judge tossed out Coke's motion to dismiss the case. In a strongly worded 55-page opinion, Judge John Gleeson of the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn said the health claims on some Vitaminwater bottles may be in violation of FDA regulations since the drink "achieves its nutritional content solely through fortification that violates FDA policy." The judge thinks Coke could be violating the so-called jellybean rule, which says that a food- or drinkmaker cannot load otherwise unhealthy products with vitamins or other nutrients in order to claim it is healthy. A sugar product is a sugar product: you can't say a jellybean fights heart disease because it contains no cholesterol.

Gleeson also ruled that the claim that the Vitaminwater name misleads consumers is potentially actionable, since that key third ingredient, sugar, is conveniently absent from the title. "The potential for confusion is heightened," Gleeson wrote, "by the presence of other statements in Vitaminwater's labeling, such as the description of the product as a 'vitamin enhanced water beverage' and the phrases 'vitamins + water + all you need' and 'vitamins + water = what's in your hand' which have the potential to reinforce a consumer's mistaken belief that the product is comprised of only vitamins and water."

Coke responded to the judge's ruling in a statement. "Vitaminwater is a great tasting, hydrating beverage with essential vitamins and water — and labels clearly showing ingredients and calorie content," the company said. "The court's opinion was not a decision on the merits, but simply a determination that the case can proceed beyond the initial pleadings stage. We believe plaintiff's claims are without merit and will ultimately be rejected."

If the case goes to a full trial, the judge will ultimately decide whether the Vitaminwater name is legal. But is it ethical? "The inference is that the water contains vitamins," says Terry Childers, a marketing professor at Iowa State. "Vitamins are generally considered healthy so in the semantic network of connections in our brains, it would be natural for the buyer to associate Vitaminwater with healthy. Given the associations and that it contains that much sugar, I think it is misleading to portray it as a healthy drink."

Marketers, however, get paid to move bottles off the shelf. And this brand managed to merge two words, vitamin and water, which epitomize good health. "From a marketing standpoint, it's brilliant," says Matt Goulding, an editor at Men's Health magazine and co-author of the Eat This, Not That! diet books. "From a corporate-responsibility standpoint, it's not exactly straight shooting."

But isn't the onus on the consumer, who can read about Vitaminwater's sugar supply in the small print, to pick up the bottle and examine what they're gulping? Yes, most people are too busy — or lazy — to read every food label. But should Vitaminwater be liable for that fact of life?

Coke is sure to make this argument as the case progresses. Still, all those exercise fiends might want to get their vitamins the old-fashioned way: a pill and a glass of water. After all, it's sugar-free.