Court Dismisses Lawsuit Over “Slightly Sweet” Tea

Court Dismisses Lawsuit Over “Slightly Sweet” Tea

Coca-Cola Co. did not mislead consumers by labeling its Gold Peak iced tea as “slightly sweet,” according to a federal court judge.

Coca-Cola Co. did not mislead consumers by labeling its Gold Peak iced tea as “slightly sweet,” according to a federal court judge. The court held in Mazella v. The Coca-Cola Co. that the plaintiff failed to plausibly allege that the term misleads consumers into believing the tea is low in sugar.

Low Sugar Claims on Food and Beverage Labels

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not define the term “low sugar.” However, the regulator has established conditions of use for “sugar-free” and “reduced/less sugar” nutrient content claims. Claims of “no added sugars” and “without added sugars” are allowed if no sugar or sugar-containing ingredient is added during processing. Meanwhile, “reduced” or “less sugar” claims are permitted on products containing at least 25% less sugar per reference amount customarily consumed than an appropriate reference food.

The FDA’s Food Labeling Guide states that “low” sugar is not defined and such claims should not be used. In the absence of FDA guidelines, courts generally evaluate whether a reasonable consumer would be misled. 

Lawsuit Alleging Misleading Beverage Label

Defendant Coco-Cola Co. manufactures, distributes, markets, labels, and sells an iced tea beverage under its Gold Peak® brand (the “Product”) that is labeled “Slightly Sweet.” The front label of the Product includes the terms “Slightly Sweet, ” “Tea, ” “Sweetened with 50% Less Sugar Than Our Sweet Tea, ” and “90 Calories Per Bottle.”

Plaintiff Amanda Mazella alleged that the Product's prominent claim of “Slightly Sweet” is misleading because it is a “low sugar” claim about the amount of sugar that the Product contains, yet the Product includes more than .5 grams of sugar. Plaintiff further alleged that the claims are misleading because sugar is the second most predominant ingredient in the Product by weight.

Based on the foregoing, Mazella maintained that Coca-Cola's branding and packaging of the Product is designed to deceive, mislead, and defraud consumers. The suit contained several claims, including violations of New York General Business Law (GBL) §§349 and 350; negligent misrepresentation; breaches of express warranty, implied warranty of merchantability, and Magnuson Moss Warranty Act; fraud; and unjust enrichment.

Court Dismisses Suit

U.S. District Judge Nelson S. Román granted Coca-Cola Co.'s motion to dismiss all claims. "Defendant avers that plaintiff fails to allege that the product is materially misleading. The court agrees," Judge Román wrote.

Judge Román specifically found that Mazella “has not plausibly alleged that ‘Slightly Sweet’ on the product label would cause a reasonable consumer to assume that it is “low sugar’ and thus low calories.”​ In support of his decision, Judge Román cited cases where similar labels were also found to not be misleading.

“According to Plaintiff, the Product label would lead a reasonable consumer to take ‘Slightly Sweet’ as a factual representation of the amount of sugar in the Product and therefore assume that the Product has a low amount of sugar,” Judge Roman wrote. “However, the Court finds that, on its face, the term ‘Slightly Sweet’ is analogous to ‘Just a Tad Sweet’ which the court in Salazar v. Honest Tea, Inc. remarked was a ‘blatant form [] of puffery.’” Judge Roman further concluded that the term “Slightly Sweet” on its own is unlikely to “‘mislead a consumer acting reasonably' into believing” that the Product has a low amount of sugar and, thus, a low-calorie count.

Judge Román also emphasized that courts have found that the presence of a disclaimer or similar clarifying language, such as a Nutrition Fact Panel, may defeat a claim of deception.  In this case, he noted that the label of the Product includes information about the Product’s sugar content and the number of calories the Product contains. “Because the Product discloses the number of calories and amount of sugar on the label, a reasonable consumer would not assume the definition of ‘Slightly Sweet’ is ‘low sugar’ or ‘low calories,’” he wrote. Finally, the court rejected the Plaintiff’s allegation that the Product label also violates an FDA regulation for relative nutrient content claims that clarify the amount of sugar in the beverage. As Judge Román explained, the relevant FDA regulation, 21 C.F.R. § 101.13(j)(2), requires that a label with a relative nutrient content claim must (1) identify the food and nutrient percentage; and (2) contain an absolute comparison of nutrient levels per serving size next to either the most prominent claim or the nutrient panel. “However, Plaintiff concedes that ‘Slightly Sweet’ is not a part of the ‘relative nutrient content claim,’ and is not subject to the regulation,” he wrote.  “Additionally, Plaintiff does not allege that the relative claim of ‘Sweetened with 50% Less Sugar than Our Sweet Tea,’  is in violation of this regulation. Thus, the Plaintiff does not sufficiently allege that the Product violates this FDA regulation.”

If you have questions, please contact us

If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Pat McNamara, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work, at 201-896-4100.

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AboutPatrick J. McNamara

Patrick J. McNamara has extensive experience in environmental, redevelopment and land use law and related litigation. His activities include the representation of developers and public entities in preparation of and presentations before land use boards, redevelopment agencies, as well as county, regional and state agencies.Full Biography

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