- A New York federal judge last week dismissed claims of deception and false advertising against Diet Pepsi. The court decided it wasn't reasonable for the plaintiffs to assume the beverage was a weight loss drink since the term "diet" is used to differentiate the product from regular Pepsi.
- "The [complaint] does not dispute that Diet Pepsi assists in weight management relative to regular Pepsi. On this basis alone, plaintiffs cannot maintain a claim that reasonable consumers have been deceived by the term 'Diet Pepsi,'" wrote U.S. District Judge Paul A. Engelmayer.
- The judge's ruling is the fourth dismissal of similar claims against diet sodas in the past three months. The other cases included allegations of fraudulent advertising against Diet Coke and Diet Dr Pepper.
The judge's decision to dismiss the claims against PepsiCo showed that consumers are still expected to know how to interpret a widely understood label like "diet." As the court pointed out, when most people see a label for "diet" drinks, they typically assume that means the beverage contains fewer calories when compared to other products — in this case to Diet Pepsi's regular, non-diet counterparts.
Judge Engelmayer wrote in his decision, "[E]ven if the word 'diet' may sometimes identify weight-loss products (as in 'diet pills' or other products available in a pharmaceutical aisle), in the context of soft drinks, the term unambiguously signals reduced calorie content relative to the non-diet version of the drink in question. Dictionary definitions specifically defining 'diet' in the context of soft drinks confirms this."
Shoppers looking for diet foods and beverages would probably expect to find artificial sweeteners on the label or other ingredients meant to reduce the per-serving calorie count. Those products are a far cry from diet supplements found in drugstores or grocery aisles alongside medicines and designed to suppress appetite.
In addition to the diet soda case, courts are grappling with the issue of other product labeling using phrases such as "better for you," "natural" or "healthy." In fact, claims such as "natural" or "all natural" can be misleading, counterproductive and even legally risky, according to recent research by flavor manufacturer FONA International.
When it comes to diet soda, sales of the beverage have declined in each of the past four years and are dropping at a faster rate than regular soft drinks. Diet beverages have fallen out of favor with consumers, possibly because of their artificial sweeteners or because of studies linking diet soda consumption with health and weight issues.
Soda drink makers such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have introduced zero sugar versions of their beverages, but nowhere do they associate the new items with "diet." It's possible that, as these beverages grow in popularity, more lawsuits are filed challenging diet soda products and consumer demand for diet products overall continues to wane, soft drink makers will further distance themselves from the once-popular word.