Dietary supplement company TriVita, Inc. will pay $3.5 million and face restrictions on future health claims to settle charges with the Federal Trade Commission that the company falsely marketed its cactus-based fruit drink with unsupported claims that the drink could treat a variety of health problems.

Nopalea, a drink derived from the Nopal cactus, was advertised by the defendants as “Inflammation Relief without a Prescription” and an “anti-inflammatory wellness drink” that could relieve pain, reduce and relieve joint and muscle swelling, improve breathing, and relieve skin conditions.

Infomercials for the 32-ounce bottles of “prickly pear” fruit drink featured Cheryl Tiegs and testimonials by satisfied customers. In one ad, the company’s Chief Science Officer appeared, stating that “over 200 articles published and archived at the National Institutes of Health demonstrate one thing: the Nopal cactus will reduce inflammation.”

But the FTC said that since the “customers” were actually paid employees of the defendants and that the various health claims were false, the company violated Sections 5 and 12 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

In a stipulated order filed in Arizona federal court, the defendants agreed to pay $3.5 million and accepted prohibitions on advertising claims. In the future, claims for Nopalea or any food, drug, or dietary supplement must be backed by randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled human clinical tests conducted by qualified researchers, while any health claims must be supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence.

The settlement also bars the defendants from stating that the health benefits of a product are clinically proven when they are not and from failing to disclose any material connection with product endorsers.

To read the complaint and stipulated order in FTC v. TriVita, click here

Why it matters: Calling the settlement part of the agency’s “ongoing efforts to stop over-hyped health claims,” the FTC sent a message with the defendants’ sizable penalty. “These kinds of unfounded claims are unacceptable, particularly when they impact consumers’ health,” said the agency’s Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, Jessica Rich. “Advertisers who cannot back up their claims with competent and reliable scientific evidence are violating the law.”