- A class action lawsuit was filed against Healthy Beverage Co., the maker of Steaz iced tea, claiming the beverage's label of "lightly sweetened" is misleading. The beverage contains 20 grams of added sugars.
- The lawsuit, filed in a Pennsylvania federal court, argues Steaz tea is high in sugar because it contains 30% of the amount of added sugars recommended for daily consumption per federal guidelines. The recommended daily consumption of added sugars is about 50 grams for a 2,000 calorie diet. Healthy Beverage Co. could not immediately be reached for comment.
- This is not the first legal fight that Healthy Beverage Co. has faced over its iced tea line. In 2013, another lawsuit argued that the use of the phrase "organic evaporated cane juice" did not clearly indicate that the company's beverages were sweetened with sugar. A judge dismissed that case in 2017.
In recent years, sugar has become an ingredient some consumers are actively looking to avoid.
The latest update to the Nutrition Facts label is bringing renewed scrutiny to the sugar content of products by separately listing added sugars. With so much focus on sugars, companies are actively working to promote the health halos of their products by calling out the fact that they use alternative sweeteners or have otherwise managed to reduce the sugar content in their products.
This class action lawsuit notes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration prohibits the use of the term "low sugar" on packaging. It argues “lightly sweetened” is a synonym that parses the language of the law, and the terminology is incorrect based on the quantity of sugar in each beverage.
The lack of definitions for certain terms popular on food and beverage labels has posed problems in the past. Claims that products are "natural" and "healthy" have previously raised concerns. The terms lack standardized definitions and companies have interpreted them to suit their needs. Likewise, companies using the term “raw” have recently come under fire for using a term that does not have a standard definition.
While creating standard definitions is a potential remedy for the confusion associated with these terms, doing so is a years-long process that may only work periodically. The term "healthy" was originally defined in 1994, but during the last 25 years, the scientific understanding of nutrition has evolved making it necessary for regulators to add more nuance to the definition. FDA opened a docket to take public comments on how to redefine the term in 2016, and a public hearing on the matter was held in 2017, but no binding revamped definition has been published yet.
While regulatory bodies continue to plod toward creating several definitions for nebulous terms, lawsuits are becoming a more common occurrence for consumers seeking clarity from food companies. Kombucha labels have been particularly heavily litigated, and sweetened beverages seem to be the next target. A class action lawsuit was filed against Coca-Cola in February stating that its claim of "Slightly Sweet" on its Gold Peak iced tea labels is deceptive. The case is still pending.
Litigating companies for using misleading labeling regarding their sugar use is not limited to beverages. Last year, Kellogg agreed to pay $20 million in a settlement for a class action lawsuit filed in 2016 and remove the term "Lightly Sweetened" from its boxes of Smart Start, Raisin Bran and Frosted Mini-Wheats. Clif Bar is also facing litigation from consumers who say that its image as healthy is “implausible” and incongruous with the amount of added sugar in its bars.
Judges have, however, dismissed similar cases for other manufacturers, including General Mills.
If the judge in this case finds the defendants' claim has merit, it could be expensive for the Healthy Beverage Co. Not only are lawsuits themselves pricey, but should the company lose or settle the case, it could result in even heftier expenses to design and print new labels without the controversial terminology. And this label reformatting doesn’t even consider potential reformulations to reduce the amount of sugar in Steaz in order to cater to consumers looking for lower-sugar alternatives, and avoid backlash from those concerned about sugar intake.