January 15, 2009 / 3:58 PM / in 9 years

U.S. group sues Coke over VitaminWater health claims

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. consumer group said on Thursday it filed a class action lawsuit against Coca-Cola Co, accusing the company of making deceptive health claims about its Vitaminwater beverages.

The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, comes just weeks after the world’s largest soft drink maker was warned by U.S. health regulators about the way it markets a different product.

Coke called the suit “ridiculous.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said Coke made a range of claims about Vitaminwater that go beyond those allowed by the Food and Drug Administration.

“Coke markets Vitaminwater as a healthful alternative to soda by labeling its several flavors with such health buzz words as ‘defense,’ ‘rescue,’ ‘energy’ and ‘endurance,'” the group said in a statement.

The company also claims the drinks reduce the risk of chronic disease and eye disease, promote healthy joints and support immune function, CSPI said.

“In fact, according to CSPI nutritionists, the 33 grams of sugar in each bottle of Vitaminwater do more to promote obesity, diabetes and other health problems than the vitamins in the drinks do to perform the advertised benefits listed on the bottles,” the consumer group said.

Coke spokeswoman Diana Garza Ciarlante fired back, saying the suit was a way for the Washington, DC-based group to increase readership of its newsletter.

“Glaceau vitaminwater is clearly and properly labeled and shows the amount of vitamins and calories in the product,” Ciarlante said in a statement.

CSPI said on a conference call it hopes Coke will change its marketing practices. Secondly, a spokesman said the group would like to see consumers reimbursed “if there is a decent way to get money back to people.”

Coke, which had long lagged archrival PepsiCo Inc in the area of noncarbonated drinks, said in May 2007 that it would acquire Vitaminwater maker Glaceau for $4.1 billion.

Coke and Pepsi both sell so-called functional beverages, which they say have vitamins, nutrients or stimulants such as caffeine or guarana.

Coke came under fire in December by the FDA, which said claims Diet Coke Plus includes a variety of vitamins and minerals violate U.S. policy against marketing soda and other snack foods as more nutritious.

Coke shares were down 13 cents at $42.49 in midday trading on the New York Stock Exchange, while Pepsi shares were down $1.05, or 2 percent, at $50.05.

Reporting by Martinne Geller in New York and Lisa Richwine in Washington; editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Andre Grenon

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