CSPI Letter Asking that FDA Act Against Misleading and Unauthorized Sugar Claims Is Followed by Class Action Complaint

January 30, 2020By Riëtte van Laack

In a letter dated January 9, 2020, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) asked FDA to take immediate enforcement action to prevent what CSPI argues are misleading and unauthorized implied “low sugar” and “reduced sugar” claims, such as “lightly sweetened” and “less sweet,” on beverage products that are “high” in sugar.  In addition, CSPI asked FDA to issue regulations regarding “added sugar” claims.

In the letter, CSPI argues that claims such as “slightly sweetened,” “sorta sweet,” and “just a tad sweet” are implied nutrient content claims that the food is “low sugar” rather than a reference to the taste of the product.  Similarly, CSPI argues that a claim “less sweet” is a reduced sugar claim.  Nutrient content claims are claims that expressly or implicitly characterize the level of a nutrient.   Such claims may be made only if they are authorized by law.  FDA has not defined or authorized the nutrient content claim “low sugar.”  Moreover, although FDA regulations allows a “reduced sugar” claim, such a claim may be made only if the product meets certain requirements and the label includes specific disclosures.  CSPI identifies 19 products from five different brands that allegedly are misbranded because they use unauthorized implied low sugar or reduced sugar claims.  CSPI argues that the claims are not only violative but are “also particularly misleading” because the products contain 22-36% of the daily value for added sugars per Reference Amount Customarily Consumed.

In addition to requesting that FDA take enforcement action against companies marketing beverages with allegedly misleading unauthorized implied “low sugar” and “reduced sugar” claims, CSPI “encourages” the Agency to expeditiously issue regulations authorizing a “low added sugar” nutrient content claim.  As readers of this blog know, the updated nutrition labeling regulation requires the declaration of added sugars in addition to total sugars.  The updated regulation also established a daily value for added sugars (not for total sugars).  As a result, it would now be possible to define “low added sugars” similar to other “low” nutrient content claims.

It remains to be seen whether CSPI’s letter prompts a response from FDA.  In the interim, CSPI’s arguments could gain traction with the plaintiff’s bar.  In fact, on January 23, 2020, a complaint was filed against the Coca-Cola company in which plaintiffs allege that they were misled into believing that Honest tea beverages (among the products highlighted in the CSPI letter) labeled as “Just a Tad Sweet” were low in sugar and calories.  The action was filed in in New York federal court under various state laws for consumer protection, misrepresentation, breach of express and implied warranty, fraud, and unjust enrichment.