(CN) - A French bottler can't bill its mineral waters as low in sodium just because they contain very little table salt but lots of sodium bicarbonate, the European Court of Justice ruled Thursday.
In 2009, French authorities ordered Neptune Distribution to stop claiming its sparkling mineral waters were low in sodium - namely to stop advertising that its "Saint-Yorre" and "Vichy Celestins" had less salt than a liter of milk.
Neptune challenged the order, leading the French Council of State to ask the European Court of Justice whether the sodium content of products should be calculated solely on the basis of the amount of sodium chloride - table salt - in them or whether all forms of sodium should be considered.
Water from mineral springs often contains sodium bicarbonate, commonly known as baking soda.
While French authorities acknowledged that consumers on a low-sodium diet might be misled into thinking the mineral waters were okay to drink despite having high levels of sodium bicarbonate, they also argued that bottlers could be harmed if they were forced to list that type of salt as sodium on their labels, since no scientific data shows that sodium bicarbonate brings on or aggravates high blood pressure.
But in its ruling, the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice pointed out that EU law prohibits bottlers from claiming water - mineral or otherwise - is "very low in sodium." As for mineral water, the law allows bottlers to advertise their products are suitable for low-sodium diets only when the total sodium content in all chemical forms is less than 20 milligrams per liter.
The court noted that EU lawmakers intended that consumers have complete and transparent information on product labels when they passed the regulations, meaning that "the quantity of sodium present in natural mineral waters must be determined by taking account of the total amount present, whatever its chemical form," the court said.
As for the EU's prohibition on labeling or advertising mineral water as low in salt, the court said the prohibition was justified because of consumers' need to have accurate and transparent information - particularly since experts can't say for certain whether sodium bicarbonate is any safer than table salt for people with high blood pressure.
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