Blackcurrant drink Ārepa has faced recent scrutiny over the claims made on its label. It comes almost 20 years after another fruit drink brand was nearly destroyed by the findings of two Pakuranga high schoolers.
Jenny Suo remembers liking Ribena, the sweet blackcurrant drink once synonymous with school lunches – and the moment she knew she could never buy it again.
In 2023, she’s a high-profile TVNZ journalist. But almost 20 years ago, she was the 14-year-old, along with her school mate Anna Devathasan, behind a science fair project that resulted in a $227,500 court case and risked seeing Ribena become just another discontinued food item.
It all started in 2004, when Suo and Devathasan decided to investigate whether or not cheaper fruit drink brands were less healthy. The focus of the experiment, which Suo now describes as “rudimentary”, was Ribena. So when the results showed that Ribena contained almost no trace of vitamin C, in stark contrast to the claims made on the label, she was certain they had done something wrong – and not the multinational corporation. “We talked to the seventh form science teacher and he was like, ‘I think you’ve done it right’,” remembers Suo.
They didn’t even win the science fair and she can’t remember who did. The winners certainly never became brief global celebrities, with their success now immortalised in outlets from The Guardian to Mashed. “We were obviously so dark about [losing] so we pushed it to the back of our mind,” she laughs.
But despite coming second, they were encouraged to send their findings directly to GlaxoSmithKline, the then producers of the fruit drink. They never heard back. “I think if [GSK] had initially posted a letter back and said ‘hey, this is why you’re wrong’ I’d say we would have left it at that. I think at that point we were only 14 and didn’t back ourselves enough that our rudimentary science experiment with cracked beakers at Pakuranga College could have been correct, or really damaging to the reputation of such a huge company.”
The story was ultimately picked up by Fair Go, drawing attention to the schoolgirls and their experiment. It was during this period they wrote to the Commerce Commission, but Suo says it was still a surprise when one of their friends called to say the Ribena experiment had made the news. “I think we called the Commerce Commission and they said ‘we’ve been testing [Ribena] and we’re going to court – do you wanna come?’”
In 2007, GlaxoSmithKline faced 15 charges of breaching the Fair Trading Act, to which it pleaded guilty, and was forced to admit the health claims it made via advertising and on its labels may have misled customers. It was ordered to launch a new advertising campaign in newspapers to correct the errors about Ribena’s health benefits.
A media circus followed, with Suo and Devathasan, by this time 17, emerging from the courtroom to a media “scrum” with cameras and microphones surrounding them. In a twist of fate, Suo says some of the journalists stationed outside the court now work alongside her at TVNZ. While footage of this moment is hard to find two decades later, Suo says she still remembers the news coverage of Devathasan and her at court. “We were quite frozen in shock… I remember thinking ‘oh god, I’ve forgotten how to walk’. It was such a foreign experience, we’d never done anything like that before. We were just two 17-year-old girls.”
There were calls from overseas journalists at all hours of the night and Suo remembers feeling quite overwhelmed by her newfound fame in her “really small” teenage world. On one occasion, she recalls being interviewed, in her school uniform, for the Herald. For the story, they had to go to the supermarket and buy some Ribena. “I remember the woman scanning it and looking at us like ‘I thought they said this was bad’.”
It was probably the last time she ever bought the drink, though she can’t be sure. “I remember confiding in Anna, I said to her ‘I actually quite like it, I like the taste’. I remember thinking, that’s a drink I can never have again in my entire life. Even though I highly doubt if I walk down the street with a Ribena somebody would point at me and go ‘oh my god’.”
Neither of them were particularly interested in “the whole fame thing” and said it started to feel like a distraction from more important events on the seventh form calendar. The pair were worried it might stop them from rehearsing for the school production. “When you think about it, it’s probably not cool, the cool kids were probably like ‘look at those nerds’. But I felt quite cool at school for the first time ever.” If she could do it over again, Suo reckons she would have basked in the limelight more. “I peaked when I was 14 and for the rest of my life I would be chasing that and maybe I should have relished it a little bit more,” she jokes.
She wonders now whether people really even remember the scandal. “I remember someone saying to me, ‘I feel like if this happened in America it would be a Disney movie by now’,” she says. “I think our generation remember it and it was kind of a big deal, [but] I feel I can no longer ride on the coattails.”
Ultimately, Ribena survived the scandal, though its public reputation was damaged around the world. The Commerce Commission described it as “a massive breach of trust with the New Zealand public” and said that the drink’s marketing had convinced people that it was “healthier than other drinks”.
Still to this day, dozens of articles about Ribenagate lie just beneath the surface of every Google search for the drink. Suggested questions like “Has Ribena been discontinued?” or “Ribena NZ scandal” pop up in the search bar when you type it in. The brand’s Wikipedia page describes “scandals” in the 2000s that damaged the drink’s image as a healthy beverage.
Now a TV reporter, Suo’s more likely to be recognised in public because of an appearance on Breakfast than for her short-lived fame as a Ribena Girl. But, she says, she’s reminded of the saga every time she walks through a supermarket.