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Consumer Group Files Suit Against Sweetener For Claiming It's 'Essential'

Ok guys, reality check here: Nutella is not really a health food, POM Wonderful may be wonderful, but it doesn't necessarily prevent heart disease and... eating Splenda Essentials doesn't single-handedly make the pounds drop off.

But some people could be led to believe that it does. At least that's the contention of a class action lawsuit filed against Splenda Essentials, an artificial no-calorie sweetener, on Thursday by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The group is representing three consumers in California who say they're being misled.

For example? Well, depending on which "Essential" you think is most essential, the website claims that using Splenda's B-vitamin-, fiber- or antioxidant-enriched powder, you can "make everything you sweeten a little better for you."

But "fortifying an artificial sweetener with vitamins or fiber doesn't make it 'essential' for health," says CSPI in their press release about the lawsuit. The group says the label falsely implies you can lose weight or avoid disease by using the product.

Johnson & Johnson, which owns the Splenda brand, tells The Salt it doesn't comment on litigation.

Ultimately, the U.S. District Court in Northern California, where the case was filed, will decide. Why there? The state has particularly strong consumer protection laws.

With everyone, it seems, turning into a picky eater, it makes sense that food manufacturers push the envelope to tout the benefits of consuming their products. What's the deal, though, with making health claims when marketing food?

It's up to the Food and Drug Administration to oversee food labels, but food advertising regulation is shepherded by the Federal Trade Commission. What you can or can't say about a product in a health claim relies on whether there's scientific evidence to back it up.

"Exactly what you'll need will depend on the claims you're making," writes the FTC on their Bureau of Consumer Protection site, "but newspaper articles, letters from satisfied customers or other non-scientific material won't be sufficient."

And a lot of claims don't pass official muster. Some, like a class action suit brought against Diamond Walnuts for touting the benefits of Omega 3 for heart health, get settled outside of court.

Why does the FTC have a hand in this stuff at all? They want the messages on food to be accurate, FTC Division of Advertising Practices Director Mary Engle tells The Salt, "because consumers most likely can't judge for themselves whether the food has the claimed benefit."

That's because health benefits often relate to conditions that take a long time to develop, she adds, and it's impossible to know objectively if something worked or didn't — imagine a medical study with a sample size of one.

Still, much like health conditions, it can take a while for the wheels of justice to turn. In the meantime, have a helping of skepticism before you get served humble pie.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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