A federal lawsuit filed Wednesday in Los Angeles claims the Dannon Co. Inc., owner of the world's best-selling yogurt brand, bamboozled tens of thousands of customers into paying extra for Activia and other yogurts falsely touted as offering special nutritional benefits.
The proposed class action accuses the company of lying in advertisements about the "clinically proven" ability of Activia, Activia Lite and DanActive to "regulate digestion" or improve the body's "immune system" with exclusive strains of what are known as probiotic bacteria. The products cost about 30 percent more than ordinary yogurt.
"Dannon's own studies fail to support this advertising message, and a number of them flatly contradict Dannon's claims," the complaint says. "Nonetheless, as a result of Dannon's deceptive advertising campaign, Dannon is able to charge a premium."
The company denies the accusations, and says it will "vigorously challenge the lawsuit."
"Dannon proudly stands by the claims of its products and the clinical studies which support them," says a statement from the company. "All of Dannon's claims for Activia and DanActive are completely supported by peer-reviewed science and are in accordance with all laws and regulations."
The suit seeks unspecified damages for anyone who bought Activia, Activia Lite or DanActive in the United States. and asks the court to order Dannon to stop the allegedly misleading ads and run "a corrective advertising campaign."
People have known about and used probiotics for centuries, but they have recently gained special prominence in the lexicon of nutritional-health advocates. They are live microorganisms, usually bacteria, similar to the beneficial ones found in the human digestive system. In the right amounts, they "confer a health benefit on the host," according to the United Nations and the World Health Organization.
But medical experts disagree over what the right amounts are and what kind of benefits they could have, according to Dr. Roshini Rajapaksa, an assistant professor of medicine at New York University.
"Probiotic bacteria have only been proven to help with very specific disorders," she says. "Probiotics is an exciting field, but it is too early to make … general claims like 'regulates your digestive system.' That doesn't mean anything in medical terms."
Dannon introduced Activia to the U.S. market in February 2006. It has since accounted for more than $300 million in sales, according to the company. Advertisements for the yogurt say that eating it "every day is clinically proven to help regulate your digestive system in two weeks."
In January 2007, Dannon introduced DanActive, described as a "cultured probiotic dairy drink that has been clinically proven to help naturally strengthen the body's defense when consumed daily."
The company says in a statement that "The scientifically substantiated benefits of Dannon's products are confirmed not only by the scientific journals that have reviewed and published the findings -- which are made available on the company's Web sites for any and all to read -- but also by the millions of highly satisfied consumers who enjoy Dannon's products."
But a report issued last year by the American Academy of Microbiology, a report that Dannon helped fund, says, "To date, there is no conclusive evidence that altering the microbiota of a healthy human adult is beneficial." The report goes on to say that "the efficacy … of probiotic treatments has yet to be determined."
Asked about those statements, Dannon spokesman Michael Neuwirth explained that they are "not specific to the substantiated claims for our products. Our products do work, and the claims that we make for them are accurate."