Coca-Cola, Obesity and Conflict

Coca-Cola launched an advert about obesity. You can see the advert here as part of a short clip on ABC news. The ABC news item had an interesting factoid in it: “Sugary sodas are the number one source of calories in the American diet.”

The Coca-cola advert has a female voice over – that kind of warm, trustworthy sort of female voice – and this is what she says: “Today, we’d like people to come together on something that concerns all of us – obesity… we now offer over 180 low and no-calorie choices…” (If you’re bored you could always play ‘spot the obese person in the Coca-Cola advert on obesity’!)

Back to the ABC report and they have a brief quote from “a sports nutritionist recommended by Coca-Cola” – Dr. Russell Pate, Director Children’s Physical Activity Research Group. Dr. Pate says “I believe strongly that we will have to increase the physical activity level of our population if we want to overcome the obesity epidemic.”

Surely Dr. Pate is bright enough to have worked out that it is better not to consume empty calories than it is to consume them and then try to work them off (good luck with a “Big Gulp” – 32 ounce monster, by the way). Surely also that Dr. Pate should have declared that the University of South Carolina Department of Exercise Science, where he works, acknowledged in their spring 2011 newsletter (opening paragraph) “Recent new funding includes a large grant from Coca-Cola“.

Steven Blair is one of Pate’s colleagues – also an active global speaker delivering the message – obesity is not about what we put in our mouths, it’s about being too darn lazy. Check out this picture of Steven Blair . He’s either too darn lazy or he’s been having too much of his sponsor’s medicine! Blair’s loyalty to Coca-Cola has not gone unrewarded – he was a torch bearer at the London Olympics “recognized by Coca-Cola North America, one of the Olympic sponsors, for his ‘leadership in helping others live positively.'”

On October 15th 2012 BBC Newsnight did a programme about lawyers in the USA who are taking on the ‘food’ and ‘drink’ industry in the same way that they did the tobacco industry. One of the lawyers is the same one who did so well against the cigarette firms, Don Barrett. The parallels between the tactics of the cigarette firms and the tactics of the soft drink manufacturers are strikingly similar. It does us no harm to make the following parallel. The main argument presented by Coca-Cola in their advert is that they have introduced over 180 low and no-calorie drinks to their range. Notice that they have taken nothing away – they have merely added lucrative new lines for more people to have more options for consuming their products. Can you imagine the reaction to Philip Morris running an advert to express their concern for heart disease with the positioning that it’s nothing to do with them because they’ve introduced lots of new low tar options?!

What Coca-Cola is doing really is that manipulative and disgraceful.

Coca-Cola’s relationships

Coca-Cola’s relationships with obesity and health organisations are widespread. They are a sponsor of the American Dietetic Association. This is additionally worrying in America as dietitians have a legislated monopoly on giving dietary advice – check out their other sponsors in case you ever wondered where American official dietary advice comes from.

At the time of writing my book The Obesity Epidemic: What caused it? How can we stop it?, Coca-Cola were a sponsor of the UK Association for the Study of Obesity. Checking today on the web site Coca-Cola are not mentioned but Kellogg’s remain a “supporter”.

Coca-Cola is a sustaining member of the British Nutrition Foundation.

The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) “is a nonprofit, worldwide organization whose mission is to improve public health and well-being by engaging academic, government and industry scientists in a neutral forum to advance scientific understanding in the areas related to nutrition, food safety, risk assessment, and the environment. ILSI receives its funding from its industry members, governments, and foundations.” The board of trustees lists 31 members, including representatives from: The Coca-Cola company and Coca-Cola Europe. (All correct at the time my book was published stating this).

One of the reasons I am so outspoken about the government’s ‘Eatwell Plate‘, which I call the eatbadly plate, is that it panders to the food companies. Kellogg’s must love the cornflakes packet – it was a Kellogg’s branded cornflakes packet on the first version of the plate (The Balance of Good Health). Coca-cola must love the red cola can, labelled cola, in the segment showing that 8% of your plate should be covered with junk. As I showed in my obesity epidemic book, that 8% of intake by weight becomes over 20% of intake by calories – perhaps an unintended consequence of this bad advice.

You know that the government’s ‘role model’ plate for healthy eating is anything but when it is featured on web sites for numerous food and drink companies. I stopped looking after the first six companies that came to mind all endorsed the plate: Sainsbury’s; Kellogg’s; PepsiCo; Coca-Cola; Nestle and Premier Foods.

The Olympics was a wonderful platform for Coca-Cola to promote their products to a global audience, as one of the official sponsors of the games. Coca-Cola’s association with sport and slim, athletic looking people, reinforces their desired message – drink Coca-cola, exercise and you won’t get fat. As Coca-Cola says on its website, they are “proud to be the longest continuous corporate partner of the Olympic Games” – an involvement that dates back to the Amsterdam games of 1928.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) has a carbohydrate working group looking at the evidence for carbohydrate intake on cardio-metabolic health. A highly worthy review and one that I would expect to raise serious concerns about modern intake of carbohydrates, especially refined ones, and modern illness – not just heart health, but diabetes, cancer, bowel disorders and all illness that has accompanied our recent diet and lifestyle. The chair of this working group is Professor Ian MacDonald, and his research interests include nutritional and metabolic aspects of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. An excellent candidate for chair you would think. However, the SACN 2008 annual report lists Professor MacDonald’s declared interests as Mars Europe and Coca-Cola Europe.

Even the World Health Organisation is not immune. They were ‘outed’ last year as a recipient of Coca-Cola’s profit.

The bottom line

Coca-Cola is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It is not Coca-Cola’s job to resolve the obesity epidemic. It is Coca-Cola’s job to maximise profit for shareholders. In the fight against the obesity epidemic, Coca-Cola is the enemy, not a private army. We know this. Coca-Cola knows this. Their response to this unfortunate truth is to try to keep their enemies closer still. We need to keep ours as far away from our citizens as possible.

Posted in Conflict, Exercise, Media comments, Obesity
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17 comments on “Coca-Cola, Obesity and Conflict
  1. avatar Etienne Marais says:

    Hi Zoe – very useful piece – especially in the context of the recent controversy around the BJSM article on activity and weightloss. I wonder how much Blair really earns from Coca-cola ! I see he also writes for http://www.beverageinstitute.co.za/expert/physical-activity-for-health-what-kind-how-much-how-intense-2/

    Best Regards
    Etienne

  2. avatar Stephen says:

    Slipp, thirty odd years of advice based on a consensus of experts and peer reviewed data, has lead to an increase in obesity, diabetes and many other chronic diseases this is undeniable.

  3. avatar Slipp Digby says:

    Stephen – Of course the food industry lobby Government, thats not to say they are successful enough at doing this to that they can lead the Government to provide people with advice which is entirely wrong and potentially harmful.

  4. avatar Jessica says:

    Please excuse the long answer, but Slipp, you encouraged me to attempt to answer your points, and thank you for your postings – I love the opportunity to reconsider my views or confirm them even more.

    Slipp said : Jessica, I am refering to the general population rather than those without specific medical conditions – that is who the eatwell plate is aimed at. No-one is suggesting the eatwell plate covers every eventuality or that you should use it instead of proper advice from a doctor or a dietician!

    I reply : But the point is, how do you know that the vast majority of the population is not suffering from a metabolic imbalance – albeit a small one? As Gary Taubes’ points out, if this were a possibility, then after the change in diet some 30 years ago, we should now be seeing an explosion in weight gain and obesity related problems….which indeed we are. I am asking you to consider the possibility that sugar high fruit and natural resources high in carbs might be making the situation worse. And also to consider that even if you are correct, even if Zoe is totally wrong, how is her plate dangerous for the general population? What minerals and vitamins does it miss out (remembering that there are ‘healthy’ people who eat this food and then take supplements on top)? Also, the dietary advice I am likely to get from a doctor or dietician is shown in the Eatwell plate. I should know, I was eating for five years whilst I watched my sugar levels and weight levels soar!

    Slipp Says : I agree that informed choice has to be based on good quality evidence.
    But you have to ask yourself is high quality evidence likely to come from the consensus of experts based on peer reviewed data, or from self appointed ‘obesity researchers’ flogging diet books?

    I reply : What peer reviewed data? If you can produce the studies which show that consuming fat (and ONLY consuming fat) leads to weight gain, we would all be very interested to see it. My complaint is that all information given by the government is based on faulty advice and the public just go along with it. I don’t agree with getting ONLY information from people who have an economic interest (although this of course would cover Coca cola and the sugar industry as a whole) but I can speak from personal experience along with the hundreds of other people. Yes, “the plural of anecdote is not data” – which is why we are calling for more studies and more investigation. What we are getting is abuse and “La la la, we’re not listening”. Even more creepily, we are now seeing, “Let’s take facilities away from fat people (why, so they can die faster?) and lay the blame at their feet”.

    Slipp says : The problem is that Zoe falls for the naturalist fallacy and also presents ideas which are potentially harmful (her views on Cholesterol being a good example) either without an evidence base, or by cherry picking studies which support her predetermined conclusion.

    I reply : Is this not what may people do where dietary advice is concerned? If you can prove Zoe wrong, please do so. Please show the studies which undermine her conclusions. There are other doctors and scientists out there who agree with her, whose science seems sound and based on studies (Gary Taubes’ book shows this clearly) but no one wants to hear this.

    If the government wants to argue that people know about their diet, and refuse to follow it, why is it that there is “Cheap fatty sugar laden food available”? Why not tax these heavily and use that money to provide cheaper fruit and vegetables? I agree we cannot simply whack huge amounts of money on such food as I truly believe some families would find it difficult to manage. But the government’s actions belie what they say, which makes them less than credible. And I’m confused – Sugar Nutrition states that sugar consumption has gone down, and yet obesity is getting worse. So the message you’re saying is not getting through must be having some sort of effect. I would argue that sugar consumption in the form of fruit and vegs has gone up, but this is not counted in a sugar consumption study.

  5. avatar Stephen says:

    Slipp, You said: “and the food industry lobbys to protect their own interests and create unhealthy foods we crave” so who do they lobby if not government?

  6. avatar Slipp Digby says:

    Stephen, the increase in diabetes and obesity is of course entirely real and undeniable.

    However I think its ridiculous to attribute this to bad government advice because the simple fact is that the majority of people do not, and never have followed the dietary advice given out by the government.

    We lead increasingly sedentary lifestyles, fatty sugar laden food is cheap and more accessible and the food industry lobbys to protect their own interests and create unhealthy foods we crave.

    Zoe claims that the eatwell plate is unhealthy, yet the vast majority of the population eat more sugar, saturated fat and salt that recommended and in most other areas cannot reach what she believes is a ‘bad’ standard. What does this say about peoples eating habits?

    This is simply a matter of education. The advice to eat properly is freely available and those who argue the advice is wrong frequently, in my experience, have a major conflict of interest themselves like commerical income from selling the alternative view – books, supplements or nutritional advice.

  7. avatar Stephen says:

    Slipp, thirty odd years of advice based on a consensus of experts and peer reviewed data, has lead to an increase in obesity, diabetes and many other chronic diseases this is undeniable.
    The scientists who have advised government have a lot to answer for and have produced some poor quality science.
    I would like these experts to explain why obesity, diabetes, etc., has happened while following their advice.
    They keep themselves employed in safe university jobs backed up by commercial interests.
    It doesn’t take much common sense to realise there is something wrong with the ‘eat badly plate’ there’s so many inconsistencies.

  8. avatar Slipp Digby says:

    Jessica, I am refering to the general population rather than those without specific medical conditions – that is who the eatwell plate is aimed at. No-one is suggesting the eatwell plate covers every eventuality or that you should use it instead of proper advice from a doctor or a dietician!

    I agree that informed choice has to be based on good quality evidence.

    But you have to ask yourself is high quality evidence likely to come from the consensus of experts based on peer reviewed data, or from self appointed ‘obesity researchers’ flogging diet books?

    The problem is that Zoe falls for the naturalist fallacy and also presents ideas which are potentially harmful (her views on Cholesterol being a good example) either without an evidence base, or by cherry picking studies which support her predetermined conclusion.

  9. avatar Jessica says:

    Hello Slipp

    From personal experience (type 2, insulin resistant diabetic) I have to exclude certain foods entirely. Anything with refined sugar. I eat as few carbs as possible. Now, yes, I understand that not everyone has to do that. I advocate that everyone needs to look at their own diet and see what’s best for them. The crucial difference between the “Eatwell” plate and Zoe’s diet is that no one will be harmed by her diet, whether they are diabetic, insulin resistant or not. The “Eatwell” plate would do me physical harm because my system now is so messed up.

    For anyone with insulin problems, it is possible that the “Eatwell” plate will do them harm as well – over a long period of time. People need to understand this and make informed choices about their food – really informed choices, where data from both sides has been tested and examined thoroughly. But the government and dieticians don’t seem interested in that.

  10. avatar Slipp Digby says:

    I think you have missed the point entirely about the eatwell plate. The vast majority of the population in the UK has a diet which is considerably worse that the eatwell plate and if the whole population conformed to these recommendations, then a significant amount of preventable disease could be avoided.

    Eatwell is supposed to give simple advice, perhaps for people who have taken little interest in their diet or who lack the knowledge to look at the hard science behind it.

    Far from telling people they must make up 8% of their diet with juke food, the plate is simply acknowledging a truth – that people enjoy eating these things, that they are not harmful in sensible amounts, and that trying to eliminate them will only increase their allure, or put off those looking to make a gradual change.

    Like most diet ‘experts’ you seem to advocate excluding many food types entirely, which in my opinion cannot realistically be maintained over the longer term.

    Thats what we all want isnt it? Small gradual changes? We are still, as a nation well short of the eatwell plate.

  11. avatar Jessica says:

    The good news is that even dieting clubs are taking umbrage with Cola “leading” a campaign about obesity. They still have some of the argument incorrect, by insisting that Cola is full of empty calories (i.e. if you count in, say, 500 caloies for one cola, that’s 500 calories you could be using on ‘healthy’ things like fruit), however, they did quote the study which showed that sugar is the leading Cause of obesity. At last. Maybe we’ll wake everyone up at last. Maybe we’ll get a voice for all those obese people who are treated so badly by some smug know-it-alls out there who insist that weight problems are their problems.

  12. avatar Stephen says:

    Hi Zoë,
    Have you seen this video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myxwCEGcBYc

    It’s from the CSPI who I’m not a fan of but this video is probably the best thing they have done. It has a dig at Cola and their polar bears.

    Keep up the good work.

  13. avatar Jessica says:

    I was hoping you would be commenting on the BBC news item which states that sugar is not addictive, and not responsible for the obesity epidemic. It suggested that Dr Lustig’s evidence has been looked at and refuted – or was it looked at and dismissed? The leading “nay sayer” appeared to be Sugar Nutrition UK, which has an entire website dedicated to telling us how sugar is a necessary part of our lives. Since they’re called SUGAR nutrition, I can’t imagine that there’s any bias there. No siree.

    • avatar Zoë says:

      Hi Jessica – Sugar Nutrition used to be called The Sugar Bureau – it’s an organsiation funded by the sugar manufacturers to represent their interests (http://www.bmj.com/content/344/bmj.d8315) I have called it an Oxymoron in the past because sugar has no nutrition! (Unless you think empty carb calories are nutritious).
      Keep spotting the conflict!
      Best wishes – Zoe

  14. avatar Lorraine says:

    “The eatwell plate” – It’s bad enough that they include junk / processed food as part of what you should eat but to add to it there’s also fruit/sugar yoghurt, soya drink (most likely contains sugar as well as soya being unhealthy) and sugar baked beans. It should be called “The How To Get Diabetes & Other Metabolic Diseases Plate”.

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