USA, FTC intervenes on the hidden advertising of sugar and aspartame

hidden advertising of sugar and aspartame

The Federal Trade Commission, in the USA, takes action against two industrial associations as well as a group of ‘dietitians’ and ‘influencers’, for the hidden advertising of sugar and aspartame through posts on ‘social media’ promoting their consumption. (1)

1) Instagram, TikTok and hidden advertising of sugar and aspartame

FTC, Federal Trade Commission, sent warning letters to the American Beverage Association (AmeriBev) and the Canadian Sugar Institute, as hidden advertisers, as well as to 12 registered dietitians and other ‘influencers’.
Who did not provide adequate information on the advertising nature of the posts on Instagram and TikTok promoting the consumption of food products and drinks with added sugars and the safety of aspartame, an artificial sweetener that IARC (International Agency for the Research on Cancer, 2023) classified as a possible carcinogen (2,3,4).

The initiative against Big Soda (USA) and Big Sugar (Canada) follows the recent revision of the ‘Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising’ (see paragraph 2 below) and the monitoring of ‘influencer marketing’ activities by of the Federal Trade Commission. With the essential contribution of investigative journalism. (5)

It’s irresponsible that a trade group hires influencers to advertise its members’ products and does not ensure that the influencers are truthful about this relationship. As seen in the health and safety claims of sugar and aspartame. Especially since they come from registered dietitians and other people who people rely on for advice on what to eat and drink (Samuel Levine, FTC, Director of the Consumer Protection Bureau).

2) USA, FTC guidelines on ‘testimonials’, ‘endorsements’ and ‘social media marketing’

FTC guidelines on the use of ‘testimonials’ and ‘endorsements’ make it clear that if there is a ‘material connection’ between the company marketing a product and an endorser – in other words, a connection that could influence the weight or credibility that consumers attribute to approval – this link must be made clear and visible, unless it is already clear in the context of the communication (i.e. explicit advertising).

The ‘material connections’ they may consist of business or family relationships, monetary payments, provision of free products. These links must always be displayed in a ‘clear and visible’ way, with information that:

– it must not be able to escape consumers, as it is evident in the visual and audio parts of the communication,

– must be easily understandable for ordinary consumers. (6)

3) Legal consequences

The ‘warning letters’ of FTC precisely identify posts that appear to be paid but do not reveal a material connection or indicate, in this regard, information that is inadequate because it is ambiguous, not very visible, without clear identification of the sponsor of the posts.

A ‘moral suasion’ where the FTC notifies the infringement of the rules mentioned above (see the previous paragraph 2) and underlines that the recipient may incur ‘civil sanctions’, up to 50.120 dollars for each violation, in case of further hidden advertising.

The recipients of the ‘warning letters’ are also asked to contact agency personnel within 15 days and specify the actions taken or will be taken to respond to the Federal Trade Commission’s concerns.

4) ‘Social media marketing’ of junk food and consumer protection

FTC intervention it is certainly useful, an excellent example for the European Union which has not yet managed to protect even children and adolescents from ‘social marketing’ and ‘influencer marketing’ of junk food (‘HFSS foods’, High in Fats, Sugar and Sodium). (7)

In the USA as in the EU – where even some rules have been defined, in application of the ‘Audiovisual Media Services Directive’ (8) – enforcement activities, however, remain isolated and episodic:

  • the previous FTC initiative, for the hidden advertising of herbal teas claimed to have a slimming effect, dates back to 2020, (9)
  • In the same year, Antitrust Italia failed to follow up on a specific complaint by GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). (10)

The ‘globesity’ meanwhile it is getting worse, thanks to pervasive ‘social marketing’ campaigns which have also been the subject of scientific studies, from false propaganda of health, well-being and Coca-Cola (Wood et al., 2019) to Nutella World Day (Coates et al. , 2020. See notes 11,12).

5) Concluding remarks

Stop the siege of the consciences of individuals of all ages with hidden advertising and misleading messages on ‘HFSS foods’ – whose serial consumption is correlated with obesity, overweight, serious and incurable diseases – is necessary and urgent, to stem an otherwise unbridgeable health crisis. However, the tools available today are unsuitable for the purposes, due to three main shortcomings:

  • classification and ‘front-of-pack nutrition labelling’ (FOPL) of foods (ie #nutriscore), based on their nutritional profiles, in accordance with WHO guidelines (2019), (13)
  • ‘web science’ and AI for the continuous monitoring of hidden and non-hidden advertising on the web, ‘online video sharing platforms’ and ‘social media’,
  • social responsability of economic operators, according to ESG criteria, in relation to the above. (14) ‘Name and Shame’, dissuasive sanctions.

Dario Dongo


(1) Federal Trade Commission. FTC Warns Two Trade Associations and a Dozen Influencers About Social Media Posts Promoting Consumption of Aspartame or Sugar. 15.11.23

(2) Marta Strinati. Aspartame is a possible carcinogen, according to IARC. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 30.6.23

(3) Marta Strinati. Aspartame and health risks, brief scientific review. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 20.8.23

(4) Marta Strinati. Aspartame, the probable carcinogen in chewing gum and soft drinks. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 31.8.23

(5) Anahad O’Connor, Caitlin Gilbert, and Sasha Chavkin, The food industry pays ‘influencer’ dieticians to shape your eating habits. The Washington Post. 13.9.23

(6) Federal Trade Commission. Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising

(7) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. ‘Audiovisual Media Services Directive’ and protection of minors from junk food marketing. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 23.11.23

(8) Dario Dongo, Selena Travaglio. Influencer marketing, what rules? GIFTS (Great Italian Food Trade). 23.7.20

(9) Federal Trade Commission. Tea Marketer Misled Consumers, Didn’t Adequately Disclose Payments to Well-Known Influencers, FTC Alleges Teams claimed products could cause weight loss and treat diseases. 6.3.20

(10) Dario Dongo. Influencer marketing, our report to the Antitrust. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 25.7.20

(11) Dario Dongo. Coca-Cola, false propaganda on health and well-being aimed at teenagers. Scientific study. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 22.12.19

(12) Marta Strinati, Dario Dongo. Children and junk food advertised on YouTube. The case of Nutella Day. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 5.2.20

(13) Dario Dongo. Codex Alimentarius, the NutriScore and the WHO guidelines. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 29.9.21

(14) Dario Dongo, Elena Bosani. Corporate Sustainability Reporting. Mandatory ESG reporting for companies is under way. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 18.11.22

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.


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