In February 2019, I wrote about the introduction of nutritionally fortified artificial sweeteners. Merisant launched a new zero calorie sweetener called Sugarly Sweet exclusively on Amazon in late January 2019, and has also created a brand-new line of artificial sweeteners fortified with vitamins and minerals.1
The fortified sweeteners are sold under the company’s Equal Plus brand, and are available in three versions: vitamin C and zinc;2 vitamins B3, B5 and B12;3 or vitamins C and E.4
The products are marketed as a “good source” of these nutrients, as a single packet provides 10% of the daily recommended value of the added vitamins and minerals. Clearly, this is nothing more than a marketing ploy.
Similarly, The Coca-Cola Co. is now seeking permission to add vitamins to various drinks in its assortment, but make no mistake — adding vitamins and minerals does absolutely nothing to change the detrimental impact these products have on your health, be it artificial sweeteners or sugary beverages.
Coca-Cola wants FDA to ease up on fortification rule
For decades, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has discouraged “indiscriminate addition of nutrients to foods,” including and especially pertaining to “snack foods such as candies and carbonated beverages.”5
Coca-Cola is now pushing the FDA to ease up on this so-called “jelly bean rule” (so called because companies cannot fortify candy such as jelly beans for the purpose of making a health claim). The reason for this FDA guideline is fairly obvious. It’s there to prevent food and beverage manufacturers from marketing junk food as healthy.
In an October 24, 2018, article6 for FOOD Navigator-USA, editor Elaine Watson reported that Coca-Cola has asked the FDA to update its fortification policy “to reflect changes in consumers’ dietary patterns and innovation in the marketplace.”
According to Coca-Cola, the jelly bean guideline damages the company’s “ability to innovate with new carbonated water, tea and juice beverages.” The primary intent behind the request, Coca-Cola claims, is to fortify sparkling beverages, not to add vitamins to soda, snack foods or beverages with “significant amounts of added sugar.”
Interestingly, Coca-Cola is already marketing Vitaminwater which, as its name implies, is fortified water — with plenty of added sugar. As noted by Marion Nestle in a July Food Politics post:7
“Some Vitamin Waters have as much sugar as a Coke. They have Nutrition Facts labels and are marketed as foods, and look to me to be in violation of the jelly bean rule. The FDA hasn’t done anything about them, even though they are vitamin-enriched sugar water. If you have any idea why not, please tell me.”
Indeed, the only difference between Vitaminwater and the type of beverages Coca-Cola is now asking permission to fortify is carbonation. Carbonated beverages “can be beneficial options in a person’s diet, so it is recommended that FDA recognize that the simple addition of carbonation should not prohibit the sale of a product under the fortification guideline,” Coca-Cola told the FDA.8
The company is also asking the FDA to expand antioxidant claims. At present, antioxidant claims can only be made for substances for which there are established daily values. Coca-Cola would like the agency to expand this rule to include substances that have “substantiated antioxidant activity that do not have an established recommended DV.”
The latest fad: Functional junk food
Candy makers are also trying to weasel more nutrients into candy in an effort to give the sweet stuff an aura of healthiness. Nestle offered several examples of candy makers taking a page out of the snack foods’ marketing book in a June 2018 post.9 Among them:
- Rainmaker’s chocolate products, which contain nuts and protein as “functional” ingredients “to give consumers an energy boost”10
- Supertreats, which mimics chocolate using carob powder instead, along with “minimally processed superfood ingredients such as chia seeds and blueberries for a nutritional boost”11
- Get More Multivitamin Chewing Gum — said to provide 25% of your recommended daily allowance of 10 vitamins after 20 minutes of chewing12
Then there’s vitamin gummy bears — a tantalizing mixture of candy and vitamin supplement marketed to kids and adults alike. As noted by Nestle,13 vitamin gummies have managed to circumvent the FDA’s jelly bean guideline by being marketed as a supplement rather than candy, although it could reasonably be argued to be both. But are gummy vitamins all they’re cracked up to be? In short, no. There are several reasons to avoid them the way you would candy.
Reasons to avoid vitamin gummies
For starters, unless it specifies being made from whole food nutrients, the product probably contains synthetic vitamins and/or minerals, many of which are known to be less effective, and in some cases, may do more harm than good. You’re also getting added sugars, which could easily be tagged as health enemy No. 1. As registered dietitian Jillian Kubala told Popsugar:14
“Added sugar should be kept to a minimum in any healthy diet, and popping a few sugary gummy vitamins per day can add up. In fact, some gummy vitamins can contain nearly one teaspoon of added sugar per two-gummy serving. Some of these also include sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol, which can cause digestive upset in some people.”
Other drawbacks and common problems associated with gummy multivitamins include:
• Unreliable nutrient content — According to Consumer Lab,15 which conducts independent testing to assess the quality of nutritional products, it’s common for gummy multivitamins to not contain the listed amounts of nutrients:
“Gummies are notoriously difficult to manufacture because it is hard to measure in the correct amounts of vitamins and minerals (some are simply sprayed on a candy base) …
[T]he ingredients in a gummy are more likely to degrade, so manufacturers often put in more than the listed amount — resulting in products with too much of a vitamin, such as folic acid, when first produced and decreasing amounts over the course of their shelf-lives.”
• Impurities — Consumer Lab also warns that gummy multivitamins often contain impurities, noting there are consistently “more problems with candy-like vitamins like gummies than with traditional forms, such as tablets and caplets.”16
• Artificial flavors, food colors, preservatives and fillers can also cause more harm than good. They’re certainly not required for good health, and many have been linked to behavior problems and other ailments in children.
• Overdose risks — The gummies unmistakable resemblance to candy can also easily result in overdosing and toxicity.17 As noted by Kubala:18
“Unlike water-soluble vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) are stored in the body and can cause toxicity if too much of these nutrients are consumed. Certain minerals, such as iron, can be dangerous if consumed in excess as well.”
Beware of phony fruit snacks
Another thoroughly unhealthy snack food marketed as healthy is gummy fruit snacks. Examples include General Mill’s Fruit Roll-Ups, Fruit by the Foot, Fruit Shapes, Gushers and Kellogg’s Fruit Flavored Snacks. While the premise sounds good — surely a fruit substitute must be better than a candy bar? — the reality is, they’re the same.
Whether the primary ingredient is corn syrup or concentrated fruit juice, the result is identical: They contain mostly sugar. And contrary to real fruit, these snacks are also loaded with artificial flavors and dyes. As noted by Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), “[I]f you compare ingredients lists, fruit snacks look much closer to candy — like jelly beans or gummy bears — than fruit.”19
One example cited by CSPI is Gerber Graduates Fruit Strips, said to contain a full serving of fruit per bar. In reality, each bar contains just 1% berries. “The main fruit ingredient is dried apple puree, which should read ‘concentrated fruit sugar,’” CSPI writes.20
Despite lawsuits, faux ‘functional’ junk foods proliferate
In 2015, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Welch Foods for violating the jelly bean rule and making Welch’s Fruit Snacks appear healthier than they actually are. As reported by RegistrarCorp.com:21
“The plaintiffs … took issue with the fact that Welch boasts that its fruit snacks are made with real fruit. The snacks are ‘devoid of the health benefits plaintiffs and other reasonable consumers associate with consuming real fruit,’ the plaintiffs said in their complaint.
Although the first ingredient in many of Welch’s Fruit Snacks are juice from concentrate or fruit purees, the following ingredients are corn syrup, sugar, and corn starch.”
Years earlier, in 2009, CSPI sued Coca-Cola for falsely advertising Vitaminwater as being able to prevent “age-related eye disease” and to promote “pain-free functioning of joints,” “structural integrity of joints and bones,” and “optimal generation and utilization of energy from food.”22,23
Meanwhile, each bottle contains 33 grams of sugar, which CSPI pointed out “do more to promote obesity, diabetes and other health problems than the vitamins in the drinks do to perform the advertised benefits listed on the bottles.”24
After six years of litigation, Coca-Cola finally agreed to change its Vitaminwater label to resolve the dispute, adding the words “with sweeteners” and removing “vitamins + water = all you need.” The company also stopped making health claims relating to metabolic health, immune function and reduction of eye disease.25 As reported by CBS News at the time of the lawsuit in 2010:26
“… Coke seems not to have understood — and most Vitaminwater drinkers certainly don’t understand — that dumping vitamins into sugar water does not make it a health drink … The law on health claims for nutrition and diet supplement products isn’t that complicated. If I can understand it, then the general counsel’s office at Coke sure ought to be able to.
Which makes me suspect these companies were simply calculating that they could make more on revenue from selling these drinks with their false claims than they’d lose when they finally got caught.”
Indeed, and here we are again. Coca-Cola now wants more leeway to fool more customers about more of its products. Aside from paying CSPI’s legal fees, Coca-Cola got away with falsely advertising Vitaminwater for years, and in the end just had to make a few minor tweaks to the label. Most likely, it was well worth breaking the rules, and there’s nothing to suggest Coca-Cola wouldn’t do it again given half a chance.
Don’t fall for functional junk food claims
When it comes right down to it, processed foods and beverages will never be able to compete with real food and pure water, and as a general rule, if a product comes with heavy advertising, you can be pretty certain it’s not a healthy choice.
Processed foods are designed to be eaten quickly, on-the-go, and often in large, addictive quantities. In eating these foods you may satisfy a brief craving, but you will not have received the vitamins and minerals, the live enzymes and micronutrients, the healthy fats or high-quality protein that your body needs to function, let alone thrive.
Cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes — all modern plagues that have a dietary component — are spreading and increasing in occurrence and severity with each passing year. The health statistics speak for themselves, and the truth these statistics are telling is that so-called “functional” foods don’t work.
The idea that candy, junk food and processed snacks can be healthy simply by adding a few synthetic nutrients is a pipedream. Your eyes may be fooled by label claims, but your body will know the difference.
Again and again, studies show processed foods and sweetened beverages promote chronic disease and shorten life span. Fortification changes nothing. It’s just a marketing ploy that increases sales, so don’t be fooled.
If you really want to eat healthy, it’s time to delegate at least 90% of your food budget to real, whole (ideally organic) foods — fruits and vegetables, grass fed meat, healthy fats, nuts and seeds and plenty of pure filtered water.
If you want flavor, a squirt of lemon or lime juice is a simple addition that won’t detract from the health benefits of the water. For a step-by-step guide to make this a reality in your own life, simply follow the advice in my optimized nutrition plan.