Soda juggernauts Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group Inc., sometimes referred to as the "Big Soda" trifecta, are facing three big soda lawsuits.
In separate class action complaints filed in New York, the text of which which can be found on ClassAction.org, plaintiffs argue that Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper's use of the word "diet" for reduced-calorie beverages is "false, misleading, and unlawful" because of their use of aspartame as a substitute for sugar.
The plaintiffs in each case allege, on the basis of "scientific evidence," that artificial sweeteners such as aspartame can lead to "weight gain and increased risk of metabolic disease, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease," as opposed to the "implied" loss of weight.
According to the complaint, all of the plaintiffs (there are two per suit) "struggled with obesity for many years" and consumed the diet drinks "in large part" because they thought that "it would contribute to healthy weight management, and, due to its lack of calories," since soda companies were "advertising the product as 'Diet.'"
The American Beverage Association (ABA), is a trade association that represents the interests of America's "non-alcoholic beverage industry." The ABA denies that zero-calorie drinks like Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, and Diet Dr. Pepper can lead to weight gain, and cited research to that effect.
"Diet beverages that contain zero or barely any calories at all have repeatedly been shown to help people manage their diets," American Beverage Association Vice President of Media and Public Affairs William Dermody told MUNCHIES in an e-mail. "That is why we proudly stand by our products against these meritless legal claims." Dermody went on to cite three separate studies, which he called "backup for our position."
Coca-Cola, for its part, echoed the sentiment of the American Beverage Association, albeit with more forceful language.
"This lawsuit is completely meritless, and we will vigorously defend against it," Kate Hartman, Group Director, Brand PR at The Coca-Cola Company said in an e-mail. "Diet Coke is a great-tasting, zero calorie beverage that is and always has been properly labeled and marketed in compliance with all applicable regulations."
But not everyone buys the story that Big Soda is selling. Marion Nestle is Professor Emeritus of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU. She's written extensively on the issue of sugar and health, and says that the link between aspartame and weight is a tricky one.
"Counter-intuitive as it may seem, most evidence shows that diet sodas do not help people lose or maintain weight," Nestle told MUNCHIES over email. "Quite the contrary. The prevalence of obesity has increased in parallel with production of diet sodas (but this is association, not causation)."
Nestle also admits that while there seems to be a link between sweeteners and weight gain, it doesn't mean that one is causing the other or explain why this is the case. "People who habitually consume diet sodas are heavier than those who do not. That part is clear, although the reasons for it are not. Some recent evidence suggests that some of the chemicals in diet sodas interfere with metabolism in ways that promote weight gain, but I think those studies are preliminary and require confirmation."
Science aside, Marion Nestle says she's not a big fan of sodas made with artificial sweeteners. "I don't recommend diet drinks," she explained. "They taste metallic to me and it is too easy to compensate for whatever calories they save."
When asked about the health issues associated with artificial sweeteners, the American Heart Association referred to a statement of theirs from last year, addressing sugar consumption in children and inconclusive research on the matter: "Because of the lack of research for or against the routine use of non-nutritive sweeteners, such as aspartame, saccharine, and sucralose in the diets of children, the authors felt they could not make a recommendation for or against these no-calorie sweeteners."
Scientific research could play a central issue in this lawsuit if it goes forth, given how much conflicting information there is surrounding the dangers of soda consumption. In January, a California class action complaint filed against Coca-Cola and the ABA concerning the health risks of drinking soda quoted academic research stating that studies "funded by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and the American Beverage Association were five times more likely to find no link between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity than studies whose authors reported no financial conflicts."
Coca-Cola also called that lawsuit "legally and factually meritless."