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Poppi Soda Faces Lawsuit Over Probiotic Gut Health Claims

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

If you’re a health food nut or like to shop at stores like Whole Foods, you’ve probably seen the soda aisles lined with the bright pastel cans of Poppi soda, a drink that claims to be “prebiotic” and distinguishes itself from other sugary soft drinks with its lesser sugar content and alleged health benefits. But is the soda everything it claims to be? One Bay Area woman is putting these claims to the test by taking the soda company to court.

Big Poppi

The brand began with a kitchen experiment. Co-founder Allison Ellsworth, seeking relief from health issues, discovered the benefits of apple cider vinegar (ACV) but disliked its taste. In her Austin, Texas home, she started creating tasty concoctions with ACV, eventually landing on a recipe that blended it with fruit juice for a more enjoyable experience.

Poppi started small, finding success at farmers' markets. The brand gained wider recognition after appearing on Shark Tank, a reality show for entrepreneurs. The exposure led to a deal with investors and a national distribution network, taking Poppi from local favorite to shelves across the country. This year, Poppi’s sales figures topped $100 million, surpassing even Coke by 1.5 times and representing 19% of the U.S. market share.

Today, Poppi is a major player in the beverage industry. It boasts celebrity fans and is known for its unique combination of soda-like flavors, purportedly health-conscious ingredients like prebiotics, and low sugar content. From its humble beginnings, Poppi has rewritten the soda story, offering a "better-for-you" alternative that doesn't compromise on taste — or so its customers think.

San Fransisco Woman Tries the Soda

Meet Kristin Cobbs, the Erin Brockovich of gimmicky beverages. She purchased offerings from the Poppi line for her own consumption multiple times up until last March. She bought them from her local grocery stores in San Francisco and online after seeing that they were marketed as “Prebiotic Soda” made “For a Healthy Gut.” She saw Poppi’s slogan “Be Gut Happy. Be Gut Healthy” and side label claims and vignettes representing that the soda contains “Prebiotics for a Healthy Gut.” Cobb understood these marketing claims as warranties that the soda did in fact contain “prebiotics” that would make her “gut healthy.” As such, these assumptions led her to the decision to buy them; she claims that she would not have bought them if she’d known the claims were untrue. And since the soda is pretty expensive compared to competitors that don’t tout prebiotic advantages, she bought them at a price premium.

As Cobb notes, Poppi’s success is “largely owed to its ability to preserve the flavor and sweetness of traditional sodas while claiming to be ‘gut healthy’ due to its inclusion of ‘prebiotics.’” Prebiotics are a type of dietary fiber that are commonly found in plants like bananas and whole grains. In Poppi’s case, it claims to be “prebiotic” because it contains inulin, a type of natural soluble fiber extracted from the agave plant. Prebiotic fiber is not digested by the body, but instead travels to the large intestine, where it promotes the growth of healthy gut bacteria known as probiotics. This bacteria is beneficial in that it helps aid digestion and regulates the immune system, among other benefits.

But when Cobb looked into the reality – and the clinical evidence – it gave her pause. After researching the ingredients in Poppi soda and their effects on the body, she became pretty skeptical that the brand’s beneficial claims were scientifically possible. Feeling duped out of her money for a scam soda, she eventually brought a lawsuit on behalf of not only herself but other consumers who were led astray by the company’s marketing tactics.

Cobb’s Complaint

Cobb points out that Poppi soda only contains two grams of prebiotic fiber, an amount that she claims is too low to cause any significant gut health benefits for the consumer from just one can. Thus, she says, someone would need to drink more than four Poppi sodas in a day to get any potential health benefits from its prebiotic fiber. The irony with this, Cobb points out, is that even if a consumer were to do this, the soda’s sugar content would add up to “offset most, if not all, of these purported gut health benefits.”

In addition, Cobb’s complaint sheds light on the misleading reasoning touted in Poppi’s health claims, masked by the “exotic and unique” names like agave inulin. In reality, most adults are able to consume enough prebiotics through a variety of day-to-day whole plant foods – pretty much any fruit, vegetable, or whole grain. Moreover, the complaint points out that experts actually recommend consuming prebiotics from these fiber-rich foods instead of dietary supplements like agave inulin because “consumption of a singular fiber type restricts the nutritional support available to our microbiome, and can limit overall diversity that is crucial for a healthy microbiome.”

The complaint also cites numerous sources on the negative effects of inulin: “Studies show that taking as little as 2.5 grams of prebiotic supplements, including agave inulin, can lead to a build-up of gas, causing abdominal discomfort, while higher doses (40-50 grams per day) can lead to diarrhea.” Other studies show that prolonged consumption of agave inulin can significantly alter the gut’s microenvironment for the worse, resulting in disruptions to one’s immune system. Yet another study found that it can lead to inflammation and liver damage at doses as small as 10-30 grams a day in just 3 weeks.

More to Come

All in all, Cobb concludes that if there are any health benefits to Poppi at all, they’re outweighed by the negative effects on the body — not to mention the wallet. Cobb hopes to be certified as a representative of a class of plaintiffs, customers like her who have purchased Poppi products relying on the misleading health benefits. The case is still in very early stages, and there’s always a chance it’ll settle before going to trial. For now, though, soda lovers everywhere may want to take their Poppi with a grain of salt (literally – if nothing else, the drink is at least sodium-free!).

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