Sept. 30, 2010 -- It has a sleek, curvy bottle, features the juice from an exotic fruit and has a catchy name, but according to both government and consumer agencies, POM Wonderful is a drink that's not as wonderful as its manufacturer claims.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission issued a complaint this week against the makers of POM Wonderful 100 Percent Pomegranate Juice and POMx supplements, accusing the company of making "false and unsubstantiated claims" in its advertisements that these products will prevent or treat heart disease, prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction.
But POM Wonderful is just the most recent drink to feature dubious nutritional claims, and experts say while these drinks may offer some health benefits, consumers should be wary of products that make promises that sound too good to be true.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit consumer group, praised the FTC's actions and called out POM Wonderful's makers for using shoddy science to back up the disease-fighting abilities of its products.
"We looked at the POM studies, and some don't meet the criteria of a high school science fair," said Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs at the center. "One study has no control group and another study involved 10 people."
Silverglade said POM Wonderful does not adhere to guidelines set by the U.S. Food and Administration.
"The FDA has specific regulations since 1993 that require companies to get pre-market approval before making such claims," he said. "Had POM's research actually been credible, the company could have followed the law and petitioned the FDA for approval of the disease prevention claims."
In response to the complaint, POM Wonderful called the FTC's allegations "unwarranted" and said it stands by the research, which, it says, supports the benefits of its products.
"We do not make claims that our products act as drugs. What we do, rather, is communicate, through advertising, the promising science relating to pomegranates," the company said on its website. "Consumers and their health providers have a right to know about this research and its results."
Nutritionists say POM juice does offer health benefits, but not to the extent the company claims.
"It's really good, high anti-oxidant juice," said Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "It's not easy to get pomegranates, so it's a good source."
But he added that when a product's advertisements claims to have proof of some benefit, consumers should be wary of it.
"Proof is a loaded word and a difficult one to use when talking about scientific literature," he said.
"There's information out there on POM juice that's promising, but no studies that confirm a cause-effect relationship," said Stacey Nelson, manager of clinical nutrition at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Makers of Vitaminwater Sued for Misleading Claims
Vitaminwater, a flavored water made by Coca-Cola's Glaceau subsidiary, also recently came under fire for its nutritional claims.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a class-action lawsuit last year against Coca-Cola over Vitaminwater's use of terms such as "defense," "rescue," "energy," and "endurance" in its advertisements, as well as for saying the product can lower the risk of eye disease, boost immunity and improve joint health.
Silverglade said Vitaminwater's claims are not as deceitful as POM's, but they are still inaccurate.
"They make a number of health-related claims concerning certain vitamins and minerals in the product that are half-truths, and half-truths are misleading under the law," Silverglade said.
Nelson said Vitaminwater does contain some vitamins and minerals, and these vitamins and minerals have health benefits, but that doesn't mean drinking Vitaminwater will provide those benefits.
"They're taking information about some of the ingredients that are there in tiny doses and running to the end zone and creating a whole claim," Nelson said.
In fact, there's a cheaper -- and perhaps more effective -- way to get the recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals.
"Is it any different than taking a multivitamin with water? No. A vitamin may even give you more nutrients," said Ayoob.
Ayoob and Nelson both added that Vitaminwater, with the exception of Vitaminwater Zero, has a lot of sugar and calories.
The Coca-Cola company called the lawsuit "ludicrous."
"Consumers can readily see the nutrition facts panels on every bottle of Glaceau Vitaminwater, which show what's in our product and what's not," the company wrote in a statement. "The success of Glaceau Vitaminwater is due in large part to consumers looking for a product like this to help support their healthy, active and on-the-go lifestyle."
Coca-Cola sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, saying "no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitaminwater was a healthy beverage." A judge ruled against the beverage giant this past summer.
Five years ago, SoBe Beverages agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by the state of Connecticut. The state accused the company of falsely stating that its drinks protected consumers from colds and offered other healthy advantages.
SoBe, owned by PepsiCo, said it would no longer make the claims and agreed to pay more than $200,000 to the state.
"Always ask questions. Ask a doctor, ask a dietician," said Nelson. "Go to the FDA site or go to a medically proven site to find out more about a claim."
Experts stress that drinks like POM and Vitaminwater, like everything else, should be consumed in moderation and as part of a balanced diet.
Perhaps most importantly, consumers should realize that they're not going to improve their health by drinking a certain kind of juice.
"There are no 'magic bullets' out there," said Ayoob. "Mother Nature doesn't work like that."