Soda as a health food? The Center for Science in the Public Interest begs to differ.
Although the label on 7UP's new line of antioxidant regular and diet sodas claims "There's never been a more delicious way to cherry pick your antioxidant!" the consumer group has cried foul and it's suing the soda's maker, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, for making false health claims.
CSPI said the drinks contain not a single drop of fruit juice and only a "small amount" of added vitamin E -- which the group claims has no proven antioxidant benefits anyway.
"Nondiet varieties of 7UP, like other sugary drinks, promote obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, and other serious health problems, and no amount of antioxidants could begin to reduce those risks," said CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson. "Adding an antioxidant to a soda is like adding menthol to a cigarette -- neither does anything to make an unhealthy product healthy."
This isn't the first time the labeling practices have attracted the attention of consumer advocacy groups. Here's the low down on the 7UP sodas and seven other popular foods whose health claims have been called into question.
Despite pictures of wholesome fruit dancing across the label, the new line of 7UP antioxident sodas contains no fruit, accoding to its maker. True, they do contain a small amount of vitamin E. But any purported health benefits of antioxidants are suggested by studies involving the consumption of whole fruits and vegetables -- not guzzling artificially fortified fizzy drinks.
It's not as if the sodas are packed with other healthful ingredients either. The 7UP Cherry Antioxidant flavor, for example, lists water, high-fructose corn syrup, citric acid, potassium benzoateand the controversial dye Red 40 on its label. A 12-ounce serving contains 9 teaspoons (38 grams) of sugars and 140 calories. And diet versions contain the artificial sweeteners aspartame and acesulfame potassium.
CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner said he's looking forward "to having 7UP go under oath and testify before a judge or a jury that this disease-promoting sugar water is actually a source of healthy antioxidants."
A spokesman for Dr Pepper Snapple Group said the soda "is properly labeled under all FDA regulations so that consumers can make an informed choice." But the company said it already had plans to reformulate and relabel the soda by February 2013.
"The new Cherry 7UP will not contain antioxidants to be consistent with the formulation and appearance of other 7UP products," spokesman Chris Barnes said in a statement.
While different brands of coconut water welcome consumers with their tropical packaging, experts say there is very little research to prove that there is anything particularly magical about the drink.
"It is high in protein, doesn't have a lot of taste and does not contain a huge amount of ... plant nutrients," said Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "Unlike most juices, which are low in sodium, coconut water has 252 mg per 8 ounce serving. Coconut water does contain phytohormones, which have antioxidant and anti-platelet properties, so there may be health benefits, but it is very expensive."
But there is one benefit that's hard to argue against.
"Coconut water is low in calories," said Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "That's a real plus, because it's very easy to overconsume beverage calories."
In 2009, this dark purple fruit blew up in popularity after Dr. Oz highlighted the lovable berry on "Oprah" as one of the secrets on her "mac daddy" anti-aging checklist. Oz told the crowd that acai berries contain twice the antioxidant content as in blueberries. Several juice companies market the fruit as one that helps prevent heart disease, cancer, aging, and encourages weight loss, just for starters.
But in 2009, the Center for Science and Public Interest warned consumers that there is no evidence that the Brazilian berry helps anyone shed pounds, and discouraged people from enrolling in the online, supposedly free, clinical trials for the product that were popping up on Internet ads and email listserves.
"I do think people hear the words tropical rain forest, and assume this is better than what they can find in the grocery store," said Bonci. "Yes, acai does contain antioxidants and phytonutrients, and also contains polyunsaturated fats and fiber, as well as anthocyanins. However, the anthocyanin content of grapes or blueberries is higher, and these fruits are less pricey."
While not as popular as the acai berry, mangosteens are enjoying popularity as a fruit-turned-juice, for which companies tout benefit claims of anti-fatigue, anti-obesity and anti-depression. The mangosteens come from tropical evergreen trees in the Pacific and contain a high concentration of antioxidants.
"Mangosteens are high in polyphenols, a type of antioxidant, and so they have anti-inflammatory properties, but so do more common berries," said Ayoob.
Bonci agreed, noting that it is also high in xanthones, another type of antioxidant.
"[There] may be some application with regards to inflammation, insulin resistance, cancer prevention or slowing cancer progression, and immune system boosting, but there are not a lot of studies, and like the other juices, said Bonci. "This is still very costly."
Similar to the acai's popularity, the pomegranate has gained ground as a superfood high in antioxidants. "Preliminary evidence indicated some health benefits from pomegranate juice, but as research has evolved, the evidence does not support it being any better than any other darkly colored, strongly flavored fruit or vegetable," said Diekman.
While the pomegranate is an excellent source of antioxidants, like many of the other fruits mentioned, it carries another heavy price tag.
"The price of pomegranate juice is double what grape juice is, and the health benefit is similar," said Bonci.
This little red fruit, also known as a Chinese wolfberry, looks similar to a cherry tomato. Native to southeastern Europe and Asia, many marketers of goji berry supplements and juice claim the fruit can stave off diabetes, high blood pressure and age-related eye problems.
But the berries come with a hefty price tag.
"They cost about $30 for an 18 ounce bag and, although they may have health benefits, the [cost] may outweigh the health value," said Bonci. "Also, some goji juices contain tiny amounts of goji berries and lots of sugar, so what you think you are getting, you may not be."
The noni fruit, not nearly as popular as its other superfood counterparts, is native to Southeast Asia and Australasia. It is marketed as a juice that supports the immune system and heart health and increases energy.
Bonci noted that the noni fruit contains high amounts of vitamin C and potassium. But so high "that it may be problematic for those with kidney disease." She even noted that a study published in the Canadian Journal of Herbalism suggested that noni may be a highly addictive narcotic painkiller.
"These are [all] good nutrient sources, but none of them can compensate for a diet that isn't good overall," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale Prevention Center. "There is no evidence of health benefit linked specifically to the intake of any of these."
Wheatgrass, often consumed as "shots" in smoothies and healthy shakes, comes from the common wheat plant known as Triticum aestivum. The food contains B vitamins, beta-carotene, vitamin C and potassium. Marketers claim that consistent consumption of the product cleanses the body and slows the aging process.
It's certainly a healthy food, "but you would need to consume a lot of wheat grass to equal what you might get in a spinach salad," said Bonci.
"These juices, and the many more that will flood the market in the future, can fit into a healthful eating plan as long as they are not over-consumed ... and that they are a part of an eating plan that focuses on more fruits, vegetable, whole grains and lean meat and low-fat dairy," said Diekman.
With that said, Diekman encourages people to eat whole fruits instead of the juice and supplement alternative when experts do not fully understand their overall health benefits.
"It's hard to resist the lure of the silver bullet," said Katz. "We probably all really know that good health requires a real commitment of eating well [and] being active. ... Marketers know we want this kind of magic, and so they do a very good job of suggesting their product provides it."