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Coca Cola’s “Q&A” is 100% “PR” Spin

A few days ago, deep into a clean-up project in my apartment, I came across a small, 42-page “Q&A” booklet for Coca Cola’s Live Positively campaign.

Subtitled “Your Refreshed Everyday Pocket Guide to Our Products and Our Commitment to Sustaining the Environment and Community,” it was one of the souvenirs I picked up at this year’s American Dietetic Association conference and expo.

The booklet – also available online – is a crash course in Big Beverage’s most common smoke-and-mirror tactics: vehement emphasis on physical activity, avoidance of nutrition issues, a framework of health centered solely around obesity and caloric intake, and rampant use of vague terms like “balance” and “moderation”.

Let’s dissect…

“CHOICE” & PHYSICAL ACTIVITY

From page one:

“The products, programs, and policies [Coca-Cola] supports help make it easier for people to enjoy refreshing and hydrating products, be physically active, make informed choices, and strike a balance that contributes to active, healthy living.”

That one sentence summarizes the prototypical “health and wellness” framework employed by the food industry.

  • The lens of ‘refreshment and hydration’ detracts from the unhealthy ingredients and artificial chemicals in many of these ‘refreshing’ beverages.
  • The emphasis on physical activity (notice that it is referenced twice) serves two important purposes: it attempts to mitigate the consequences of unhealthy eating and pushes the “personal responsibility” angle. The underlying subtext is that it’s not the soda and chips that are “the problem,” it’s a lack of physical activity (spoiler: physical activity levels have not declined since the 1980s). This is partially why the food industry has been such a vocal cheerleader of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign — it has very little to do with food. If only the campaign were “Let’s Eat Better” or “Let’s Drink Less Soda”.
  •  Like “moderation”, “balance” is a food industry go-to term because it is intrinsically subjective. Ask twenty different people to tell you what “balanced eating” means and you’ll receive twenty different answers. Does “balanced eating” translate to one can of soda a day?  One a week?  One a month?

ON SWEETENERS & SAFETY

We are reassured that the sweeteners Coca-Cola uses in their beverages “have all been thoroughly studied, are safe, and permitted for use in food and beverages by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.”

A classic example of distraction and deception. The FDA defines “safe” as:

“Reasonable certainty in the minds of competent scientists that the substance is not harmful under its intended conditions of use. The specific data and information that demonstrate safety depend on the characteristics of the substance, the estimated dietary intake, and the population that will consume the substance.”

Technically, then, sugar is “safe”. How honest is that assessment, though? According to current estimates, the average American adult  consumes 22 teaspoons a day, well above the recommended daily limit of 6 to 9 teaspoons a day (the former figure applies to women, the latter to men).  Lack of nutrition aside, recent studies have linked high sugar intake to increased risks of cardiovascular disease and pancreatic cancer.

In reality, sodas offer “safe” ingredients in unsafe amounts.

ON “SPARKLING BEVERAGES”

Big Food and Big Beverage love euphemisms.  In this case, “sparkling beverages” is the euphemism for soda, which is the euphemism for liquid candy.

According to this booklet, “sparkling beverages are refreshing beverages that hydrate… and provide carbohydrate calories (energy) that can help supply the energy necessary for daily activities.”

In other words, the 9 teaspoons of added sugar in a can of Coca Cola are innocuously rationalized as a source of energy that helps the body operate efficiently. Never mind that these calories are empty and void of vitamins and minerals (many of which the average American does not get enough of on a daily basis).

When it comes to diet “sparkling beverages”, we are told they do not provide calories and, therefore, do not contribute to weight gain. That isn’t necessarily true, though. Some neurological studies have found that artificial sweeteners do not activate “food reward pathways” in the same way caloric sweeteners do. Recent rat studies have also demonstrated a link between artificial sweetener consumption and weight gain.

Here, though, is the most brazen statement of all in defense of “sparkling beverages”:

“All beverages hydrate. Coca-Cola.. is 85 percent water.”

“COMMITMENTS” TO WELL-BEING

One classic Big Beverage tactic is to deflect attention from an unhealthy product portfolio by supporting “healthy” causes. We’re supposed to perceive Coca-Cola’s status as the “longest continuous corporate supporter of the Olympic Games” as proof of their commitment to active living. In reality, such a sponsorship deal is masterful marketing, which translates to increased sales.

Coca-Cola also boasts that it is the founding partner of Exercise is Medicine, a trademarked (!) program of the American College of Sports Medicine. Notice, again, the absence of nutrition; rather ironic considering that, as an ancient Greek physician stated well over 2,000 years ago, food is medicine, too.

DON’T FALL FOR THE SPIN

As much as this Q&A booklet claim to “set the facts straight”, it is glossy, wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing propaganda that operates under the guise of objective science.

This sort of heavy public relations artillery is exactly why health and nutrition professionals need to understand the food industry’s deceptive tactics, which are too often used with generous impunity. The information in these booklets should not be used as talking points, but rather as an example of what nutrition advocates are up against.

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7 Comments

  1. Norma said on November 29th, 2011

    Love it. Linking to it. Well done! :)

  2. Kat said on November 30th, 2011

    Awesome.

    Next you should dissect Kellogg’s book- The Special K challenge and beyond: Your guide to weight management, healthy living, and delicious cooking.

  3. Kate Shaw said on November 30th, 2011

    I guess yogurt is also a great way to hydrate given that it is 90% water. Guess what else hydrates? …water!

    Amother great post, thanks Andy!

  4. Barry said on November 30th, 2011

    Really great, Andy. Thanks for the insight.

  5. Andy Bellatti said on November 30th, 2011

    Kat,

    Oh, no — where is this book available? Major bookstores? Or is it a small booklet that comes with their cereals?

  6. Kat said on December 2nd, 2011

    Hey Andy!

    I saw it on iBooks when I was looking for food books. I downloaded the “sample”. It is pretty ridiculous! All about “that third meal”.

  7. Ashley said on February 15th, 2012

    Great post. So well said! A lot of companies that talk about “health” simply frame it as an individual responsibility to deflect attention from the real issues and remove societal responsibility. And, as you point out, the “health” conversation is misleading and seems to skew evidence. This seems pretty typical also. UGH! Interesting that words like “moderation” and “balance” make your spin detector go off. It makes perfect sense and now I will keep an eye out for those words.

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