Diet Soda Makers Sued Over Deceptive, False and Misleading Advertising

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  • By lowering appetite suppressant chemicals and encouraging sugar cravings, artificial sweeteners raise your odds of weight gain. They also promote insulin resistance and related health problems, just like sugar
  • Two years ago, a consumer group asked the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration to investigate Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc. and other companies for false advertising
  • Class-action lawsuits have now been filed against Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo, Dr Pepper Snapple Group and Dr Pepper/Seven Up Inc., charging them with false advertising for the deceptive use of the word “diet”
  • By using the word “diet” in their brands and advertising, a reasonable consumer would think the drinks are a diet or weight loss aid — a notion refuted by scientific evidence
  • Each of the three lawsuits cover a class of consumers living in New York, who between October 16, 2011, and present day purchased Coca-Cola, Pepsi or Dr Pepper brand diet beverages

By Dr. Mercola

Low- or no-calorie artificial sweeteners such as aspartame are typically used to sweeten so-called "diet" foods and beverages in lieu of calorie-rich sugar or high fructose corn syrup. The idea is that consuming fewer calories will result in weight loss. However, research has firmly refuted such claims, showing that artificial sweeteners actually produce the complete opposite effect.

By lowering appetite suppressant chemicals and encouraging sugar cravings, artificial sweeteners actually raise your odds of weight gain. Studies have also shown artificial sweeteners promote insulin resistance and related health problems just like regular sugar does, so claims that "diet" soda and snacks are a safe and healthy option for diabetics are false as well.

Use of the Word 'Diet' Is Deceptive, False and Misleading

False advertising is prohibited by federal law, and the term "diet" is only permitted on brands or labels when it is not false or misleading. Two years ago — in light of the overwhelming amount of research demonstrating that artificially sweeteners actually raise your risk of obesity rather than combat it — the consumer group U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) asked the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to investigate Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc. and other companies for false advertising.1,2

In its citizen petition to the FDA,3 USRTK asked the agency to issue warning letters to Coca-Cola and Pepsi for misbranding their beverages, as use of the term "diet" is false and misleading. On July 1, 2015, USRTK sent another letter4 to the FDA, urging the agency to stop Coca-Cola Co. from making "illegal claims that its artificially sweetened sodas prevent, mitigate or treat obesity."

In one instance, Coca-Cola Co. had announced5 that its No. 1 "global commitment to fighting obesity" is to "offer low- or no-calorie beverage options in every market." If artificially sweetened beverages promote obesity rather than fight it, then Coca-Cola's commitment is merely worsening the problem. It's also unsupported by a large body of science.

As noted by Gary Ruskin, codirector of USRTK, at the time,6 "Coke is gulling consumers into believing that artificially sweetened soda is a treatment for obesity. Coke is wrong on the facts and the FDA should stop them if they are on the wrong side of the law."

One of the Biggest Consumer Scams in Last 50 Years

For those of you who recall these events and wondered what ever came of it, I can now offer you an important and interesting update. October 16, three separate class-action lawsuits were filed against Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo, Dr Pepper Snapple Group and Dr Pepper/Seven Up Inc.,7,8,9,10,11 all of whom make and sell "diet" beverages sweetened with aspartame.

As reported by CBS News,12 "The suits allege that the companies' use of the word 'diet' in the beverages' 'false misleading and unlawful' marketing could make a 'reasonable consumer' think the drinks are a diet aid." According to attorney Abraham Melamed:

"What's been going on is clearly deceptive advertising. In our opinion, it's one of the biggest consumer scams in the last 50 years, and it has to stop. There's a strong sense of urgency because there are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of consumers out there that are being deceived on a daily basis."

According to the complaints, the beverage makers should be aware of the published evidence against aspartame, which proves the artificial sweetener actually worsens obesity and related health problems. With this knowledge, it stands to reason that continuing to promote no- or low-calorie beverages as "diet" products is a willfully deceptive act aimed to deceive people who want to manage their weight.

The class-action lawsuits also charge the beverage makers with violating FDA and New York state food labeling rules, both of which explicitly prohibit labeling that is "false or misleading in any particular." As one would expect, the companies that have issued public responses to the allegations have all rejected the lawsuits as "meritless" and vow to "vigorously defend" themselves.

Named Plaintiffs Feel Duped and Misled

The named plaintiffs in each complaint — two per lawsuit — report struggling with obesity for many years and "frequently" buying diet sodas, believing this would "contribute to healthy weight management" since such beverages are calorie-free. Each of the complaints note that:

"… While touting [Diet Pepsi/Diet Coke/Diet Dr Pepper] as 'diet,' and containing zero calories, [Pepsi/Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper] deceptively omitted material information, namely that despite its lack of calories, the consumption of [Diet Pepsi/Diet Coke/Diet Dr Pepper] can lead to weight gain and contribute to metabolic disease, diabetes and cardiovascular disease."

According to the plaintiffs, they would not have paid the prices they did, or would not have bought the beverages at all had they known the word "diet" was being used in a deceptive way. While each complaint currently has only two plaintiffs, each of the three lawsuits cover a class of consumers living in New York, who between October 16, 2011, and present day purchased Coca-Cola, Pepsi or Dr Pepper brand diet beverages.

Cheated New Yorkers Can Join the Class Action

If you live in the state of New York, and feel one or more of these companies cheated your efforts to improve your health, consider joining the class action. The following attorneys and firms are reportedly working on the three complaints:

  • Derek T. Smith and Abraham Z. Melamed of Derek Smith Law Group PLLC13
  • Jack Fitzgerald, Trevor M. Flynn and Melanie Persinger of The Law Office of Jack Fitzgerald PC14
  • Andrew Sacks and John Weston of Sacks Weston Diamond LLC15

Evan Geffner and Ivan Babsin are named plaintiffs in the complaint against Coca-Cola Co.. Elizabeth Manuel and Vivien Grossman are named in the complaint against Pepsi-Cola Company, and Yasmin Excevarria and Joette Phoneix are named in the suit against Dr Pepper Snapple Group and Dr Pepper/Seven Up, Inc.16

You can find copies of the three complaints on ClassAction.org.17 The plaintiffs, who are seeking a jury trial, are seeking to prevent the defendants from marketing artificially sweetened beverages as "diet," along with unspecified restitution and damages for the class. They also seek an order "requiring the soda makers to conduct a 'corrective advertising campaign.'"

Recent Meta-Analysis Again Confirms Artificial Sweeteners Don't Work as Advertised

Backing up the accusations in the complaints are studies showing aspartame promotes weight gain despite its lack of calories, and that by interfering with metabolism, it also increases the risk for metabolic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. I published these associations in my book "Sweet Deception" over 11 years ago.

One of the most recent of these studies18 — a scientific review of 37 studies that followed more than 400,000 individuals for an average of a decade — was published this past July in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. As many others before it, this review again linked use of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose to obesity, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and heart problems.

These effects were in part attributed to the sweeteners' detrimental effects on metabolism, but also on their adverse effects on gut bacteria. According to Dr. Ryan Zarychanski, assistant professor at the University of Manitoba and one of the authors, "We found that data from clinical trials do not clearly support the intended benefits of artificial sweeteners for weight management."

Research Overwhelmingly Refutes 'Diet' Claims

Research over the last 30 years — including several large scale prospective cohort studies, to which you can now add the one just mentioned above — have shown that artificial sweeteners stimulate appetite, increase cravings for carbs, and produce a variety of metabolic dysfunctions that promote fat storage and weight gain. Below is a sampling of studies published through the years that contradict and refute the beverage industry's claims that diet soda aids weight loss.

Preventive Medicine 198619 — This study examined nearly 78,700 women aged 50 to 69 for one year. Artificial sweetener usage increased with relative weight and users were significantly more likely to gain weight, compared to those who did not use artificial sweeteners, regardless of their initial weight.

According to the researchers, the results "were not explicable by differences in food consumption patterns. The data do not support the hypothesis that long-term artificial sweetener use either helps weight loss or prevents weight gain."

Physiology and Behavior 198820 — In this study they determined that intense (no- or low-calorie) sweeteners can produce significant changes in appetite. Of the three sweeteners tested, aspartame produced the most pronounced effects.

Physiology and Behavior 199021 — Here, they found that aspartame had a time-dependent effect on appetite, "producing a transient decrease followed by a sustained increase in hunger ratings."

Journal of the American Dietetic Association 199122 — In a study of artificial sweeteners performed on college students, there was no evidence that artificial sweetener use was associated with a decrease in their overall sugar intake.

International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition 200323 — This study, which looked at 3,111 children, found that diet soda was associated with higher body mass index (BMI).

International Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders 200424 — This Purdue University study found that rats fed artificially sweetened liquids ate more high-calorie food than rats fed high-caloric sweetened liquids. The researchers believe the experience of drinking artificially sweetened liquids disrupted the animals' natural ability to compensate for the calories in the food.

San Antonio Heart Study 200525 — Data gathered from the 25-year-long San Antonio Heart Study showed that drinking diet soft drinks increased the likelihood of serious weight gain — far more so than regular soda.26 On average, for each diet soft drink the participants drank per day, they were 65 percent more likely to become overweight during the next seven to eight years, and 41 percent more likely to become obese.

Journal of the American College of Nutrition 200527 — In this two-year-long study, which involved 166 school children, increased diet soda consumption was associated with higher BMI at the end of the trial.

The Journal of Pediatrics 200628 — The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Growth and Health Study included 2,371 girls aged 9 to 19 for 10 years. Soda consumption in general, both regular and diet, was associated with increase in total daily energy intake.

Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 201029 — This study is particularly noteworthy as it not only delves into the neurobiology of sugar cravings, it also provides a historical summary of artificial sweeteners in general, along with epidemiological and experimental evidence showing that artificial sweeteners tend to promote weight gain.

It also illustrates that as usage of artificial sweeteners has risen, so have obesity rates (graph below). More than 11,650 children aged 9 to 14 were included in this study. Each daily serving of diet beverages was associated with a BMI increase of 0.16 kg/m2.

Source: Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine June 8 2010: v83(2)

According to the authors: "[F]indings suggest that the calorie contained in natural sweeteners may trigger a response to keep the overall energy consumption constant ... Increasing evidence suggests that artificial sweeteners do not activate the food reward pathways in the same fashion as natural sweeteners … [A]rtificial sweeteners, precisely because they are sweet, encourage sugar craving and sugar dependence."

Appetite 201230 — Here, researchers showed that saccharin and aspartame both cause greater weight gain than sugar, even when the total caloric intake remains similar.

Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism 201331 — This report highlights the fact that diet soda drinkers suffer the same exact health problems as those who opt for regular soda, such as excessive weight gain, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke.32,33 The researchers speculate that frequent consumption of artificial sweeteners may induce metabolic derangements.

Nature 201434 — This study was able to clearly show causation, revealing there's a direct cause and effect relationship between consuming artificial sweeteners and developing elevated blood sugar levels. People who consumed high amounts of artificial sweeteners were found to have higher levels of HbA1C — a long-term measure of blood sugar — compared to nonusers or occasional users of artificial sweeteners.

Seven volunteers who did not use artificial sweeteners were then recruited and asked to consume the equivalent of 10 to 12 single-dose packets of artificial sweeteners daily for one week. Four of the seven people developed "significant disturbances in their blood glucose," according to the researchers.

Some became pre-diabetic within just a few days. The reason for this dramatic shift was traced back to alterations in gut bacteria. Some bacteria were killed off, while others started proliferating.

In recent years, we've learned that gut microbes play a significant role in human health. Certain gut microbes have been linked to obesity, for example, and as it turns out, artificial sweeteners disrupt your intestinal microflora,35,36,37,38 thereby raising your risk of both obesity and diabetes.

Specifically, the researchers found that artificial sweeteners alter metabolic pathways associated with metabolic disease. Decreased function was observed in pathways associated with the transport of sugar in the body, for example.

PLoS One 201439 — This rat study also found an increased risk of glucose intolerance. Animals fed aspartame ended up with raised levels of propionate — short-chain fatty acids involved in sugar production. Consumption of aspartame shifted gut microbiota to produce propionate, which generated higher blood sugar levels.

Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 201540In this study, diet soda consumption was linked to increased belly fat in Americans over the age of 65. Seniors were followed for an average of nine years, and while the study was an observational one and hence cannot prove causation, the authors note that there was a "striking dose-response relationship" between diet soda consumption and waist circumference.

People who never drank diet soda increased their waist circumference by an average of 0.8 inches during the nine-year observation period; occasional diet soda drinkers added an average of 1.83 inches to their waistline in that time period; daily diet soda drinkers gained an average of nearly 3.2 inches — quadruple that of those who abstained from diet soda altogether. What's worse, abdominal fat gain was most pronounced in those who were overweight to begin with.

Time to End the Deception

At the peak of its popularity in 2005, 3 billion cases of diet soda were sold in one year. Diet soda has since fallen out of favor, with sales dropping by 27 percent (834 million cases) as of 2016. Still, diet soda accounts for 25 percent of the carbonated beverages sold in the U.S.41 by volume, which means many Americans are still drinking it, and chances are many of them believe they're making a healthier choice by avoiding regular soda.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests otherwise. When you add together the various routes of harm — from confusing your body's metabolism to altering your gut bacteria for the worse — it would appear artificial sweeteners have likely played a role in worsening the obesity and diabetes epidemics since their emergence. A significant part of their allure is the idea that they can allow you to indulge in something sweet without suffering weight gain and related repercussions.

After all, "diet" refers to something that will help you lose weight (or help you maintain a good figure), doesn't it? The idea of guilt-free indulgence has also been part of diet soda marketing for years.

Even in cases where it's not explicitly stated that diet soda will help you lose weight, the industry has diligently "educated" the public about the equally erroneous idea that weight loss is a matter of "energy balance," and to lose weight, you have to cut calories and expend more calories through exercise. The energy balance myth does nothing if not support the consumption of diet beverages as a means to lose weight by cutting calories.  

Reclaim Your Health by Ditching Artificially Sweetened 'Diet' Foods

I strongly recommend avoiding all artificial sweeteners, not just aspartame, and to read food labels to make sure you're not inadvertently consuming them. They're added to some 6,000 different beverages, snacks and food products, so there's no telling where they might be hiding. For safer sweetener options, you could use stevia or Luo Han, both of which are natural sweeteners.

Keep in mind that if you struggle with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or extra weight, then you have poor insulin sensitivity and would likely benefit from avoiding ALL sweeteners. Unfortunately, just like sugar, artificial sweeteners can cause you to become addicted to them. If you find you have trouble quitting diet soda or other artificially sweetened products, I suggest trying Turbo Tapping.

This is a version of the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) that is specifically geared toward combating sugar cravings. For instructions, please see the article, "Turbo Tapping: How to Get Rid of Your Soda Addiction." The video below with EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman also demonstrates how to use EFT to fight food cravings of all kinds. If you still have cravings after trying EFT or Turbo Tapping, you may need to make further changes to your diet. My free nutrition plan can help you do this in a step-by-step fashion. 

Last but not least, if you experience side effects from aspartame or any other artificial sweetener, please report it to the FDA (if you live in the United States). It's easy to make a report — just go to the FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator page,42 find the phone number for your state, and make a call to report your reaction. Also, if you're a New York resident interested in joining one of the three class-action suits, contact the law firms listed above.

+ Sources and References
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