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Abbott Laboratories may have misled diabetic customers

Glucerna powders and shakes contain ingredients which can cause negative health impacts like spikes in blood sugar, and consumers say the products’ labels are misleading.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — A company touting meal replacement shakes and powders as healthy for diabetics cannot dodge most claims from consumers who say its products’ ingredients could cause negative health impacts, such as blood sugar spikes. 

U.S. District Judge P. Casey Pitts ordered this week to allow most class false advertising claims to continue against the health care tech firm Abbott Laboratories. The company manufactures Glucerna powders and shakes, marketed to people with diabetes to help manage blood sugar, which contain sucralose and other additives, which a class of consumers say do not offer any health benefits.

Pitts said that at this early pleading stage, there is enough evidence to find that the company’s “sweeping representations” about its Glucerna products deceived consumers.

Attorneys for both sides did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The putative class of plaintiffs, a group of consumers who bought Glucerna products, say that the products’ labels claim that they can help users manage blood sugar. The plaintiffs say this is misleading because the shake ingredients — sucralose, carrageenan, and maltodextrin — are unhealthy for diabetics and other people, according to various studies associating the ingredients with negative long-term health outcomes. Sucralose can lead to blood sugar spikes and insulin resistance syndrome, for example, and the plaintiffs say the World Health Organization advises against consuming it.

The defendant in a motion to dismiss, filed March 6, asked the judge to block all the claims. Abbott says that the contested front label on its products, which plaintiffs cite as having deceived consumers, is not the only label and another side label clarifies that its products are “designed to help minimize blood sugar spikes in people with diabetes compared to high glycemic carbohydrates.”

The company said that means the plaintiffs cannot pursue consumer fraud or other claims, in part because the labels specify the products offer a short-term reduction in blood sugar spikes. Abbott Labs also said the studies that the consumers cited do not plausibly support a causal link between the products’ ingredients and negative long-term health effects.

Judge Pitts, in an 11-page order filed late Wednesday, only granted Abbott’s motion as to the claims for injunctive relief. He said that plaintiffs’ allegations do not suggest that they face a risk of future harm since they are now aware of the products’ ingredients and the potential health risks.

“This is therefore not the kind of labeling case where plaintiffs must rely in the future on the manufacturer’s ongoing representations about the product,” Pitts said.

But the judge denied Abbott’s motion to dismiss all of the other claims under the California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act, False Advertising Law and Unfair Competition Law.

Pitts said that the plaintiffs’ claims raised three questions: whether reasonable consumers would interpret Glucerna labels about how the products work, what the products actually do and if there is any disparity between how consumers may interpret the labels and what health impacts the products have.

The products in question carry labels promising that Glucerna products are “healthy” sugar-alternative drinks and powders that can help aid the management of blood sugar generally “and for those with diabetes specifically.” Judge Pitts said that he cannot conclude at this stage that a reasonable consumer would necessarily see an additional label Abbott and understand that it meant to limit the scope of the main label’s claims.

Therefore, the plaintiffs plausibly claimed that Glucerna products’ labels are false, deceptive or misleading to a reasonable consumer, and that sucralose and other ingredients may lead to negative health effects — which is sufficient to back up the claims.

As for the plaintiffs’ warranty breach claim, the judge said that he would also deny Abbott’s attempt to block it, on the same basis for rejecting dismissal of the statutory claims.

The plaintiffs have until June 27 to file an amended complaint, the court ruled. If they do not, Abbott Labs must respond by July 11.

Abbott has also faced litigation about marketing of its Ensure shakes, a separate line of nutrition shakes it manufactures.

A class of consumers in a 2022 lawsuit also accuse the company of intentional misrepresentation and falsely mislabeling their products, and for using such phrases as “Complete, Balanced Meal Replacement” and “#1 Doctor Recommended Brand” on its packaging.

Ensure’s advertising has long been the subject of criticism. In 1995, the Center for Science in the Public Interest called one of its ads “the most misleading food ad” of the year.

Two years later, the Federal Trade Commission entered into a settlement with Abbott over three claims: that Ensure was recommended by doctors as a way for people to stay active and healthy, that doctors recommended it more than any other nutritional supplement, and that the product had the same amount of vitamins as a multivitamin supplement.

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Categories / Business, Consumers, Courts

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