A decades-long campaign involving classic advertising, targeting youth, fighting taxes, influencing research, and obscuring facts? Sounds like a story we’ve already seen played out when we lifted the veil on Big Tobacco. This, however, is Big Soda—whose main players include The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo—and their tactics are all too familiar.
Today, we face an added sugar crisis. Sugar consumption has increased by 30% in the last 30 years. The average American adult consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day, and American children consume 32 teaspoons—way above the World Health Organization’s six teaspoon recommendation. According to the latest Federal Government Dietary Guidelines, soft drinks currently represent 25% of Americans’ sugar intake, and sugar-sweetened beverages in general (including sports drinks and juice) represent 39% of our sugar consumption. Just one 12-oz can of coke has 9.5 teaspoons of sugar.
Why is soda so bad for us?
As the largest source of added sugars in the American diet, soda is a major contributing factor to a host of medical conditions. High amounts of sugar can lead to weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, teeth and bone damage.
The more soda a person drinks, the greater the chance that he or she is overweight. “People who drink this ‘liquid candy’ do not feel as full as if they had eaten the same calories from solid food and do not compensate by eating less,” said Harvard researchers.
“People who drink this ‘liquid candy’ do not feel as full as if they had eaten the same calories from solid food.”
“I know of no other category of food whose elimination can produce weight loss in such a short period of time,” said Dr. David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital.”
Science also shows that excess sugar consumption can affect cognitive function. UCLA scientists discovered that if your diet doesn’t have a sufficient amount of Omega-3 fatty acids to balance a diet high in sugar, your ability to learn and remember information will suffer. In their study, two groups of rats were fed a sugared solution for six weeks. The rats that didn’t receive Omega-3 fatty acids to offset the high glucose amounts significantly underperformed in a maze.
There are also claims that sugar has similar effects on our brain that drugs like cocaine do. In fact, Coca-Cola was initially made with cocaine, so it isn’t that much of a stretch. Sugar activates the rewards system in our cerebral cortex and releases dopamine, producing a good feeling. Too much sugar and it can create an addiction, similar to drugs and alcohol.
If we know soft drinks are so bad for us, why are they still so popular? Here are ten ways that Big Soda got us to overlook damaging statistics and continue consuming sugary beverages.
1. They told us that physical inactivity was to blame for obesity
The soda industry successfully shifted the obesity conversation away from diet and on to exercise. They argue that the high obesity rates today are attributed to Americans becoming more sedentary and not moving as much as they used to. The solution, according to them, is exercise—not making changes to our diets.
To ingrain the misconception that exercise is the cure-all for obesity and diabetes, Coca-Cola proclaims on their website: “There is increasing concern about overweight and obesity worldwide, and while there are many factors involved, the fundamental cause in most cases is an imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended.”
This theory formed the basis for Coca-Cola’s short-lived and controversial Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN). GEBN proclaimed that the cause of obesity was a discrepancy between “energy in” (the amount of calories consumed) and “energy out” (calories burned in physical activity). The nonprofit disbanded at the end of 2015, less than two years from its formation, after it was revealed that Coca-Cola paid University of Colorado researchers $1 million to promote these ideas.
While it’s true that exercise is important in leading a healthy lifestyle, it doesn’t have a major impact on our waistlines. A year-long study conducted in 2007 followed sedentary, overweight adults as they started a regular exercise regimen. Without making any changes in diet, men had lost an average of 3.5 pounds by the end of the year, and women only 2.5 pounds. Similarly, Loyola University released a report in 2015 that argued that unless you are exercising well above the recommended daily activity levels, the only way to lose weight is by cutting calories.
Even fitness experts, who would normally love pro-exercise arguments, have told us that resting the weight of obesity on physical activity is unrealistic. Crossfit Founder Greg Glassman actively opposes Coca-Cola’s pro-exercise programs, saying that if people believed that exercise is the solution to obesity, then what he was promoting at Crossfit was akin to “medical malpractice.”
2. They funded pro-soda and pro-sugar research
Big Soda supports their pro-exercise argument by funding research studies to ensure that they have “science-backed” claims. Just last year, the Mayo Clinic published a Coca-Cola-funded report that claimed “the American diet is no longer a significant risk factor for disease for most individuals.”
Most importantly, Big Soda rests on a decades-long pro-sugar campaign. It was only this year that we learned from the University of California San Francisco that the sugar industry manipulated research on the causes of heart disease. After research emerged in the 1950s that connected sugar to heart disease, the Sugar Research Foundation sponsored a 1965 Harvard University literature review that downplayed sugar’s risk factors. Instead, researchers shifted the blame to fats, shaping public misperception of heart health for decades.
Researchers shifted the blame to fats, shaping public misperception of heart health for decades.
In addition, the sugar industry influenced dental health research, particularly in the 1970s. Sugar-funded research and campaigns focused attention on fluoride toothpaste and other measures to prevent tooth decay, rather than urging people to lower sugar consumption.
The current president of the Sugar Association has said that sugar doesn’t cause obesity—that it’s a “slippery slope” to connect the two. Current PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi has made similar remarks: “We have to approach this as a complex problem that requires a multifaceted solution, as opposed to a simple solution such as tax the company or make bans happen.”
Misperception of sugar comes all the way from the top. The federal government didn’t provide recommendations on sugar consumption until this year. (Now they suggest sugar should be less than 10% of your daily calories.)
To make Americans more aware of the sugar they consume, the FDA unveiled new nutrition labels that will take effect in July 2018. The new labels break out added sugars and list the percentage of your daily recommended sugar intake.
Not surprisingly, the Sugar Association released a statement protesting the new guidelines: “We are concerned that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent that is not grounded in science, and could actually deter us from our shared goal of a healthier America.” They go on to argue that adding another category to the labels and fixating on one dietary aspect “may undermine consumer efforts to have healthier diets.” The American Beverage Association (ABA) also believes the new label is unnecessary, but because soda companies are already addressing sugar concerns.
Though the new labels are a move in the right direction, many health advocates argue that the FDA should stop measuring sugar in grams and instead use teaspoons, of which Americans have a better understanding. Tina Rosenberg writes in an op-ed for The New York Times, “In general, the industry has been able to make nutritional labels as feeble and confusing as possible. It’s hard to tell what’s a little and what’s a lot.”
3. They influenced health groups, researchers, and dietitians
In addition to funding pro-soda and sugar research, Big Soda also pays health professionals outright to make statements supporting them. This is especially common when legislators propose soda taxes. Kyle Pfister, a public health advocator, discovered that dieticians were tweeting against the soda taxes, using hashtags like “#partner” and “#advisor” to allude to their connections with the soda industry (like the one below).
— Robyn Flipse (@EverydayRD) October 5, 2016
But their influence goes much deeper than just paying for endorsements here and there. A study from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported that Coca-Cola and PepsiCo financially supported nearly 100 health organizations between 2011 and 2015, including, ironically, the American Diabetes Association and the American Society for Nutrition.
Though they are one of the leading causes of obesity, soda companies are completely woven into the fabric of our health and wellness organizations.
Rhona Applebaum, Coca-Cola’s chief scientist and health officer stepped down in November 2015, after leaked emails between Applebaum and University of Colorado professor James O. Hill showed just how biased the Global Energy Balance Network’s health recommendations were.
Soda companies are completely woven into the fabric of our health and wellness organizations.
Applebaum allegedly told Hill that the GEBN researchers had to cooperate with the soda industry—”that is non-negotiable.” It was also leaked that Hill wrote to another Coke executive, stating: “I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in peoples’ [sic] lives and back to being a company that brings important and fun things to them.”
In June 2016, Dr. Barbara Bowman, director of CDC’s Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, resigned after leaked emails showed she was collaborating with Coca-Cola executives. Emails revealed her offering executive Alex Malaspina help connecting with the World Health Organization (WHO), which had previously given Coca-Cola the cold shoulder.
In some cases, soda companies have hired public health officials who previously fought against them. PepsiCo hired Dr. Derek Yach, a public health advocate who worked for WHO and led their fight against tobacco, as director of PepsiCo’s global health policy. Yach argued that he wanted to make change from within. However, critics (like Soda Politics author Marion Nestle) argued that this move only lended more credibility to PepsiCo.
4. They created fake grassroots movements to fight soda taxes
To fight obesity, 33 states have passed some form of a soda tax. However, the tax amounts are generally small enough not to affect consumption levels. When communities have come together to propose higher soda taxes and restrictions, the industry has reacted with a force equal to Big Tobacco lobbying.
In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg witnessed this firsthand when he proposed the Soda Cap, prohibiting the sale of sugary beverages 16 ounces or larger. This measure ignited the soda-backed grassroots movement. New Yorkers saw anti-soda cap propaganda from what appeared to be community-based organizations (e.g., “New Yorkers against Soda Cap”), but who were in fact created and supported by the soda industry.
To fight San Francisco’s Prop E soda tax in 2014, Big Soda created The Coalition for an Affordable City, which deceptively sounded like a community group fighting against the high cost of living. They hired non-residents to hold signs during “No-on-E” protests, and even published the names of many companies who opposed the tax that were actually in favor of it.
San Francisco’s Prop E didn’t pass, but when taxes and amendments are approved they are immediately challenged in court by the American Beverage Association. After the New York soda cap was approved by the NYC Board of Health, it was defeated in the New York Supreme Court in June 2014.
Though hailed as a success story, Philadelphia is now battling the ABA over their Sweetened Beverage Tax. Revenue from the tax, which is the highest in America at 1.5 cents per ounce, goes towards pre-K programs, parks, and rec centers. The ABA argues that it’s double taxation and therefore unconstitutional. It is still unclear if the tax will take effect in 2017 as planned.
“They hired every lobbyist in America—some from the moon.”
Big Soda spent $10 million to fight the tax in Philadelphia alone, and it has spent $67 million nationwide to fight similar legislation. In an interview with The New York Times, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney tried to make light of the fierce battle with Big Soda, noting that “they hired every lobbyist in America—some from the moon.”
5. They pushed stevia-sweetened sodas—the new “healthy cigarette”
Coca-Cola and Pepsi’s diet sodas have long been the industry’s answer to sugar critics. Though lower in sugar and calories than regular cola, the ingredients in these beverages don’t fit the healthy banner they sit under.
Coca-Cola Life and Pepsi True, which were both introduced in the U.S. in 2014, are packaged in green cans and marketed for their low-calorie natural sweetener, Stevia. Both companies have been criticized for their claims about how “natural” Stevia is, which they support with advertisements that feature plants and the color green.
Stevia sweetener, which is derived from the Stevia plant, doesn’t just fall off the plant like the ads suggest. It is significantly processed.
A class action lawsuit against stevia argued that, “A reasonable consumer would not consider food products containing unnaturally processed, synthetic substances… created via chemical processing to be ‘all-natural.’”
Furthermore, critics argue that the green, natural images Coca-Cola and PepsiCo project with these products lead consumers to believe (wrongly) that they are healthy. But Pepsi True contains 3.2 teaspoons of sugar in its small 7.5-ounce can, while Coca-Cola Life has a whopping six teaspoons of sugar for every 12-ounce can.
Queensland University of Technology’s Professor Amanda Lee said, “It reminds me of the stage we were up at 30 years ago when manufacturers were making healthy cigarettes. I’m worried, it’s trying to make a product that’s intrinsically unhealthy, healthy.”
(Click below for Part 2.)