January 10 2017
Carrie L. Lukas
“Taste the Feeling”—that was the slogan that the Coca-Cola company debuted in 2016. Right now, the company is stuck with the bitter taste of facing a lawsuit from a California-based nonprofit alleging that it engages in misleading advertising practice and hides the health risks associated with its products.
Never mind that Ad Age's look back at 130 years of Coca-Cola slogans shows that it's been more than a century since the company suggested that Coke provided any sort of health benefit. Coke has long been using feel-good catch phrases to tie its products in with good times and happiness, not as a health elixir. Such a charge would be easier to make against a company primarily pushing fruit juices and “energy drinks,” which are often just as high in calories and rich in sugars, and typically fail to providing any meaningful nutritional advantages over a plain old Coke. Yet the nonprofit group singles out the Coca-Cola company, presumably because of its iconic status, for its lawsuit and to drive it's public relations point.
The left-leaning Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is litigating on behalf of the Praxis Project, the nonprofit behind the lawsuit, even went so far as to compare the beverage provider to the tobacco industry for its supposedly deceptive marketing techniques. That's about the worst charge you can levy against a consumer-goods provider.
This inflammatory rhetoric, and the headlines it helps generate, are probably the primary goal of the lawsuit. But not surprisingly, these overwrought claims have little relations to the truth when it comes to the health effects of soda. No one argues that full-strength sugar soda or even lower calorie diet alternatives are health foods, but it's inaccurate to single out soda for the nation's obesity problems or the rise in diabetes.
As the American Diabetes Association explains, the causes of diabetes are complicated. Yes, drinking sugary drinks is associated with higher rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes, which is why the American Diabetes Association recommends limiting intake of any sugar-sweetened beverages including “regular soda, fruit punch, fruit drinks, energy drinks, sport drinks, sweet tea, and other sugary drinks.” The important takeaway is that people need to be careful about overall calorie and sugar consumption, not that having a sweetened drink is the health equivalent of having a smoke.
Cornell University researchers reached a similar conclusion after studying the soda, candy, and fast food consumption habits of 5,000 adults. They failed to find a link between consuming these empty calories and weight gain in 95 percent of the population. The real problem and driver of obesity was overall consumption levels, not how Americans were getting those calories. David Just, the lead research for this study and co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics, put it simply: "Because of the bad habits we have, with all our food, just eliminating junk food is not going to do anything. ...We are eating too much generally. We need to cut back on our total consumption. We need to be better about exercising...There is nothing flashy about that advice. It's not magic; there is no silver bullet here."
That's good advice, but it doesn't make for the same colorful headlines as painting Coca-Cola, a company as American as apple pie and baseball, as an greedy evil monster purposely fattening up the public. Of course, the Coca-Cola company already offers numerous lower calorie and sugar free alternatives to its sugar-laden soda lines. And, in fact, research shows that most obese people have already made the switch to diet soda and are less likely than their thinner peers to drink full-calorie soda. So much for the idea that ridding the world of regular soda will cure obesity.
Coca-Cola, like others in the industry, are already trying to make their products more appealing to an increasingly calorie-conscious consumer base. Soda consumption has fallen in recent decades, so these companies need alternates to succeed. This kind of market pressure, not half-baked litigation or new busy-body regulations, ought to be the impetuous for such change.
The biggest problem with this type of litigation and public relations' stunt is that it sends the message that companies and certain products are what is making people overweight. But soda—or juice, or french fries, candy bars, pasta or Caesar salad dressing—aren't the problem. Such indulgences can be a part of a healthy diet when enjoyed in moderation; it's the moderation part that Americans struggle with. Blaming soda pop and pretending that we can litigate our way to better health sounds easier and therefore more attractive, but sadly it's never going to work.