Right now, 'healthy' sells. The reason is obvious: Americans are in a health crisis; one-third of the country is obese and heart disease rates are ever-growing, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). As mortality becomes a reality, disease-preventing foods are piquing peoples' interest, and the market is flooded with them.
But how trustworthy are the products you find on supermarket shelves? This question is currently being posed by POM Wonderful, a seller of 100 percent pomegranate juice, which is accusing Minute Maid of marketing its brand of pomegranate blueberry juice in a way that misleads consumers into thinking it contains a substantial amount of the antioxidant-rich fruit, in order to capitalize on the health and nutrition zeitgeist.
POM has filed a lawsuit against Minute Maid's parent company, Coca-Cola, under the Lanham Act for false advertising, claiming the juice's name and label make it appear as if pomegranate is the main ingredient, though the blend actually contains less than 0.3 percent of pomegranate juice and is over 99 percent apple and grape juice.
When customers see Minute Maid's 59-ounce bottle selling for less than $4, compared to POM's 16-ounce bottle at $4.99, they tend to opt for what appears to be a better deal. But the issue goes beyond unfair competition, said POM spokesperson Rob Six.
"Most people drink pomegranate juice for the health benefits. So, it fools with people's health," Six said. "We see it more as a consumer issue -- a consumer alert issue."
Coca-Cola's main defense is that it adheres to all applicable guidelines by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency chiefly responsible for regulating food labels. This is true, stated the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in a summary judgment of the case.
However, the court determined that FDA compliance isn't enough to get the case thrown out all together, and does "not bar POM from alleging that Coca-Cola has advertised or marketed the juice in a misleading manner," wrote district judge James Otero.
The Minute Maid juice label reads 'Pomegranate Blueberry' and below that, 'Flavored Blend of 5 Juices.' It is decorated with an image of a fruit vignette that includes pomegranates, apples, blueberries, grapes and raspberries.
Coca-Cola claims the use of the word 'flavored' in the name justifies the fact that pomegranate and blueberry aren't the two main ingredients in the juice, and that the word 'blend' implies there are additional fruits at play, according to court documents. The company declined to comment during active litigation, but issued a statement saying it "stands firmly behind its brands" and is "committed to providing the highest quality products to consumers."
It now falls on POM to prove intentional deception. The company commissioned a research group to conduct a field survey gauging consumer reaction to various types of juice packaging. The online survey, which polled 1,200 people nationwide, found that 75 percent of respondents thought juice labels exaggerate the presence of healthy ingredients in the product, and a majority lacked confidence about a juice's true contents based on what they read on the front label.
In court documents, Coca-Cola contests the validity and accuracy of the study and insists the Minute Maid label's main message is that the juice "is healthy, nutritious, nourishes the brain, is good for you, has Omega-3/DHA or has other vitamins and nutrients."
But POM contends that Minute Maid sought to "exploit and ride the wave of pomegranate juice's popularity."
POM has similar lawsuits pending against Tropicana, Welch's and Ocean Spray.
The civil case will be determined by a jury, likely before the end of this year. But if the battle can't be won in the courtroom, Six said the next step is to take it to Washington and urge Congress to take a look at the issue.
"At the end of the day we need reform," he said. "I think it would be more transparency for consumers, and I actually think it would drive companies to make better products."
The push for food label transparency has been continuously gaining momentum in the last two decades. In 1990 the now well-recognized nutrition facts label was established, with terms like 'low-fat' and 'light' coined; in 1995 the American Heart Association began stamping products as 'heart healthy'; 2002 marked the birth of USDA Certified Organic; and in 2008 New York City became the first city in the U.S. to require calorie posting in chain restaurants.
Last month, the European Parliament approved a measure that requires processed foods to clearly list fat, salt and sugar content. (It rejected a stricter measure that would saddle the biggest culprits of this trifecta with red warning stickers. This nevertheless created quite a stir in Italy, where Italians' beloved Nutella would have been a victim of the red-flag rule.)
Moreover, tightening label regulations isn't enough; they also have to be enforced, and both the FDA and USDA currently lack the resources (or, depending on whom you ask, the will) to do so, said 'supermarket guru' Phil Lempert, "Today Show" food editor and editor of the Lempert Report.
"It is a sea of confusion in the supermarket," he said. "All that a supermarket is, is a real estate agent. And what I mean by that is, they're going to put out there what people want. What people buy."