Coca-Cola Co and the American Beverage Association trade group were sued on Wednesday for allegedly misleading consumers about the health risks from consuming sugary beverages.
The nonprofit Praxis Project accused the defendants of downplaying the risks to boost sales, despite scientific evidence linking sugary beverages to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Praxis accused both defendants of using euphemisms such as "balance" and "calories in, calories out" to mislead consumers, and Coca-Cola, the world's largest beverage company, of trying to mislead the public into thinking a lack of exercise was the real cause of obesity.
"The notion that Coke's products can be part of a healthy diet is imprinted on the minds of millions if not billions of people, and requires corrective action," Maia Kats, litigation director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which helped file the lawsuit, said in an interview.
Coca-Cola spokesman Kent Landers called the lawsuit "legally and factually meritless. We take our consumers and their health very seriously and have been on a journey to become a more credible and helpful partner in helping consumers manage their sugar consumption."
The American Beverage Association called the lawsuit's accusations "unfounded." It also said that, together with its members, it is working with health groups to reduce consumers' caloric and sugar intake from beverages.
Wednesday's lawsuit seeks to stop misleading marketing and require more consumer warnings, among other remedies. It was filed with the federal court in Oakland, California.
Coca-Cola and PepsiCo Inc have pledged to bolster efforts to reduce added sugar in beverages.
In October, Coca-Cola Chief Operating Officer James Quincey, slated to succeed Muhtar Kent as chief executive in May, said the Atlanta-based company has more than 200 "reformulation initiatives" towards that end.
But according to the complaint, a 16-ounce bottle of Coke has 12 teaspoons of added sugar, a 15.2-ounce bottle of Minute Maid Cranberry Grape Juice drink has 13 teaspoons, and a 20-ounce bottle of Vitaminwater has eight teaspoons.
By comparison, the American Heart Association recommends no more than nine teaspoons a day for men, and six for women.
A teaspoon of sugar has about 16 calories.
The CSPI sued PepsiCo in October over health claims for its Naked juices, but did not target that company in Wednesday's lawsuit. Kats said PepsiCo "is not promoting itself as a voice of science, or misrepresenting the harms of sugary beverages the way Coca-Cola is."