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Girlpower Gets Glaxo

Girlpower Gets Glaxo

By Emma Norman

The international pharmaceutical giants GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is being taken to court for false advertising based on the scientific say-so of a pair of schoolgirls.

The 14-year-olds had decided to test GSK’s claim that “the blackcurrants in Ribena have four times the vitamin C of oranges”. The simple experiment they conducted obliterated GSK’s assertions by proving that Ribena contained virtually no trace of vitamin C. Other brands of orange drinks actually contained almost four times more.

The budding scientists took their claim to the New Zealand Commerce Commission and now GSK are about to face 15 charges of misleading advertising and potential fines of NZ$3 million (US$2.1 million). Now that’s real girl power!

Inspired by this David and Goliath story, we teamed up with renowned scientist Dr Arthur Goldsmith of the University of Bristol with the aim of foiling more fibbing vitamin-C-claiming multi-nationals.

Method (this is easy and you can get in on the act as well):

  • Get hold of some weak starch solution and iodine.
  • Put 5ml of the starch solution into a beaker and add a couple of drops of iodine using a pipette. The solution should go a nice dark colour.
  • With a clean pipette take a sample of a drink that you believe might contain vitamin C, such as orange juice or 5 Alive tropical drink.
  • Drop by drop add the drink to the starch/iodine mixture.
  • Remember to count the number of drops you’ve added. Eventually you will see the dark colour begin to disappear.
  • Add enough drops until the dark colour has completely disappeared.
  • This gives you a measure of how much vitamin C was in the drink – the more vitamin C there is then the fewer drops of drink you will need to add to the mixture to get rid of the colouration.
  • If you repeat the procedure with a number of different drinks then you can compare which drinks have more vitamin C than others.
  • We tried 12 different drinks that all purported to contain vitamin C (except the milk, but we thought it might contain it anyway):
  • Then we compared the amount of vitamin C that each of the drinks claimed to have with the number of drops of drink it took to make the iodine colour disappear.


Annoyingly it seems that none of the companies we tested were telling lies. The relationship between number of drops it took to get rid of the colour was very obviously related to the amount of vitamin C that the drinks claimed to have. Even Ribena has the audacity to have the right amount of Vit C in it these days.  (Table of results)

In fact using this data we were able to estimate the amount of vitamin C that is present in 100ml of the drinks we didn’t know already.  (Graph of results)

Fresh orange juice = 20mg
Conc. lemon juice = 44mg
Milk = 7mg


So what have we learned from all this? Glaxo have stopped lying, chemistry isn’t as hard as we thought and you never know what you might find in lab cupboards.

Thanks to Dr Arthur Goldsmith for invaluable assistance.  If you liked this then check out our other strange research:

Girl's humour is sicker than men's
Magenta isn't a colour
Global warming solved

Title image: Jyn Meyer

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29 Aug 2009
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