Amid declining soda consumption in the United States, the Coca-Cola Company has taken drastic measures to polish its public image and brand itself as a healthy snack option — even with little substantial changes made to its product.
In February, the soda company launched a public relations blitz, complete with radio segments and op-eds, to promote the brand as a “refreshing beverage option.” Consultants and health experts penned news pieces in major newspapers and nutrition blogs that hailed the addition of Coke’s new miniature cans as an ideal snack that emphasizes portion control.
In a statement provided to the Associated Press, officials from Coca-Cola said the company works with health experts “to help bring context to the latest facts and science around our products and ingredients.” A spokesperson said that its op-ed placements are similar to brands making product placement deals with TV shows.
But Coca Cola’s strategy has drawn the ire of dietitian groups, many of whom say that these practices — particularly the collusion with dietary experts and public relations firms — have entered an ethical gray area. The Dieticians for Professional Integrity, for example, recently called for more defined boundaries between dieticians and food companies in order to uphold a code of ethics that discourages the “false and misleading” endorsement of products.
“We’ve seen blatant examples of industry co-opting science,” Andy Bellatti, a founder of the Dieticians for Professional Integrity, told MedPage Today. More than a year ago, Bellatti and more than a dozen dieticians formed the group in opposition of the nation’s top “junk food companies,” including Coca-Cola. Their goals include greater financial transparency and advocacy for what they call more ethical sponsorships. “Most of the American public has no idea that its national nutrition organization has McDonald’s and Coca-Cola educating its professionals,” said Bellatti, also a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in nutrition.
Soda companies have practiced these tactics for many decades. Last year, the American Beverage Association — which represents refreshment drink industry giants such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi — publicized the findings of a 12-week study that said diet soda could aid in weight loss. Public health researchers didn’t hesitate to criticize the legitimacy of the research and the subjects chosen for the study, concluding that a long-term study would have actually highlighted the negative effects of soda consumption. In 2013, the company jumped into the national obesity conversation with a commercial that highlighted its diet drinks and contributions to fitness programs. In 2009, Coca-Cola gave a six-figure sponsorship to American Association of Family Physicians to the chagrin of its members, some of whom left the organization shortly after.
Contrary to what beverage companies try to tell consumers, health experts say that soda — with its primary ingredients being water and sugar — has no nutritional value. Long periods of soda consumption cause a more than 100 percent increase of fat around one’s liver and skeletal muscle, a precursor to diabetes. The food coloring in Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and other sodas have been found to pose a significant cancer risk to those who consume at least 16 milligrams per day. And the childhood obesity epidemic that has gained traction in the last 30 years can be partially attributed to the high sugar intake among young people via sugary drinks and snacks.
One might never know about these risks looking at the scientific research co-opted by the soda industry, posing serious consequences for those in search of accurate information about their food. A 2013 study, for example, found that scientists were complicit in food companies’ public relations schemes, with those who accepted funding denying a relationship between consumption of sweetened beverages and weight gain five times more than those who didn’t have financial ties with industry titans. The practice has been in existence since at least the 1960s, when sugar industry representatives discouraged the National Institutes of Health from pursuing sugar reduction as a public health goal.
“There is a tremendous amount of debate around these issues, being largely driven by people who have different agendas regarding politics rather than an agenda which is to evaluate the evidence and tell people what we think it’s saying,” Laura Schmidt, a professor at University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, told the Huffington Post. “Because it’s a very political issue, the science gets caught in the middle and can get spun in all directions.”
Manipulating perceptions of what counts as a healthy meal or habit has kept many food companies afloat during a time when Americans are becoming more health conscious. McDonald’s, Burger King, and Panda Express used key words to convey seemingly conspicuous changes that didn’t provide a healthier eating experience for customers. Burger Kings’ turkey burger still the same number of calories as its traditional offering. McDonald’s used green labeling denoting its switch to healthier options when in fact its “healthy” Egg White Delight, resplendent with bacon and cheese, had only 40 less calories than the original.