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Flu shots are "so last year," the advertisements read. Along with, "more vitamin C, more immunity, less snotty tissues."

The ads, for Vitaminwater drinks, came under fire a year ago by the National Consumers League, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocate organization.

The league filed a complaint in late 2011 with the Federal Trade Commission about the ads by Glaceau, the Coca-Cola subsidiary that also does business as Energy Brands and is the manufacturer of Vitaminwater.


"These advertising claims are not only untrue; they constitute a public health menace. Stopping these Vitaminwater claims, which contradict information by the Centers for Disease Control and other public health authorities, should be a top Federal Trade Commission priority," said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the league, in a newsletter.

The consumers league, which dubbed Vitaminwater a "flavored, vitamin-fortified sugar water," asked the FTC to stop the ads and "deceptive label statements" like calling Vitaminwater a "nutrient enhanced water beverage."

The products contain crystalline fructose and other forms of sugar and are 125 calories per bottle, with the exception of Vitaminwater 0. Labels that make the drinks seem like they only contain water and vitamins are misleading, the consumers league argued.

"Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese; the last thing people need is sugar water with vitamins you could get from eating a healthy diet, or by taking a vitamin pill," Greenberg said.

The complaint was resolved, but some health experts say misconceptions about Vitaminwater and other sports drinks abound as both advertising dollars for such products and their popularity remain robust.

FTC decision

The league, which bills itself as a nonprofit watchdog, filed the complaint with the FTC in February 2011.

Greenberg's letter cited several previous FTC cases as precedent for corrective action, including one from 2010 involving the Kellogg Co., which was claiming in ads that Rice Krispies cereal fortified with vitamins "now helps support your child's immunity."

The consumers league also asked that Energy Brands be required to run corrective advertising to "dispel any lingering deceptions caused by this misleading and reckless advertising campaign."

Energy Brands' response was that the Vitaminwater ads reflect the "fun, humorous and engaging personality" of the product.

On Jan. 18, the FTC responded with a letter saying the investigation was closed and enforcement was not being recommended, largely because the ad campaign had been discontinued.

"Our decision not to pursue enforcement action is not to be construed as a determination that a violation may not have occurred," added Mary Engle, associate director with the FTC, in the letter.

She said the Coca-Cola subsidiary assured the FTC that future Vitaminwater advertising would be carefully reviewed to ensure it complies with the FTC rules.

A company statement sent to the TH said Energy Brands officials were disappointed by the league's decision to file a complaint with the FTC without first raising its concerns with Energy Brands, but they were grateful the inquiry was now closed.

"We will continue to ensure that claims in vitaminwater advertising are accurate and well substantiated," the statement said.

In a league press release, Greenberg said she had hoped the FTC would have formally prohibited the advertising claims and required corrective ads be released. But she added that the FTC's response should signal to the food industry that the agency has "no tolerance for grossly misleading health claims in food ads."

Health value and ad influence

People consume soft drinks because they like them and the companies that make them advertise heavily and effectively, said Kim Peterman, a dietitian with The Finley Hospital.

"They're there to make a profit. Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola, their business plan is to have us all drinking a six-pack a day," she said, noting the high level of advertising by such companies along with widespread sponsorship programs at schools and businesses.

"That's really hard to counter some of that," Peterman said. "People in good effort try to look for alternative things, but that's just one more snake oil salesman. It's really hard for people."

Consumers tend to think that Vitaminwater is a better selection than soda, it has some flavor that will make it taste good and that some of the vitamins will help supplement a less-than-balanced diet, according to Peterman.

"Those are all good thought processes," she said, adding that for those whose diets are hit-and-miss, the solution to a vitamin deficiency is in eating the right foods.

With a growing number of products offering doses of multivitamins, including some cereals and a variety of energy and protein bars, it is possible for consumers to take in too much of a good thing.

"Getting a high amount (of vitamins) can alter things to the degree it can be harmful," Peterman said.

Teresa Green, the Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition fellow for the league, wasn't aware of any other recent complaints from the organization involving sports drinks, but she does recommend consumers look carefully at the labels of what they buy.

"If you look at the actual sugar content gram-for-gram, it's not that much better than a soda. It's fine if it's your treat for a day," Green said of many sports drinks.

So when would a person require an electrolyte boost from a sports drink like Vitaminwater or Gatorade?

During and after workouts in which the person is sweating intensely, particularly if they don't plan to eat a meal soon after the loss of fluids, Peterman said.

On her drive to work, Peterman often sees the Western Dubuque High School football team practicing on very hot days in the late summer. That would be the time to have a sports drink, she said.

But high sales figures indicate people are consuming sports drinks much more often.

In 2010, Vitaminwater had more than $700 million in sales, making it one of the most popular sports drinks on the market, according to the league.

The best drink for sipping throughout the day is water, Peterman said.

She recommends consumers buy a water filter if they want to improve tap water taste or bring a cup with a lid when on the go as a reminder to keep drinking water throughout the day.