The latest dubious tactic of global soft-drink giant Coca-Cola has now been revealed for what it is - a move by an industry with a threatened financial future to confuse science, policy and the public, in order to buy time, and protect profits.
On paper it seemed harmless enough; the recent founding of the Global Energy Balance Network may have even sounded like a good thing. A group of scientists wanting to bring more attention to the global and serious challenge of obesity, and encourage policy makers to recognise the importance of exercise in its mitigation. On further reading though, it becomes increasingly apparent that their focus is more about shifting our attention away from what we eat - probably the most important point for intervention in tackling overweightedness globally. Talking little about the ‘calories in’ and focusing only on ‘calories out’, a leading Canadian obesity physician was drawn to ask the question: “what is this network really about?”
As it turns out, the network is funded indirectly by Coca-Cola. Their website is registered and administrated by Coca-Cola. Many of their scientists are linked to Coca-Cola funding, or have been funded directly by them.
This is just the latest round of sad but dangerous moves by the sugar drink giant to confuse consumers, stall policy and halt public health. The food and beverage industry have a long history of funding puppet NGOs, paying leading thinkers to sit on their ‘advisory boards’ and even commissioning research to confuse the scientific landscape. In fact, a paper published in PLOS Medicine in 2013 found that studies funded by the sweetened beverage industry were 5x more likely to find no link between sugary drinks and weight gain, than studies whose authors reported no such conflicts. From the company that has brought us summer, printed our names on their bottles, even launched a ‘life’ labelled package in an ironic green wrapping - this latest “network” is unlikely to be a surprise to many of us, but presents a challenge for us all.
With this in mind, what are the facts that they’re working so hard to distract us from?
1. ‘Calories in and calories out’ is a convenient argument that doesn’t add up
First of all, we must be somewhat kind to industry. Companies and their directors are mandated to shareholders to return profits - not protect the long-term health of those that consume their products, protect children from obesity or be concerned with the environmental outfall of their food processing. It is the role of governments to regulate the way in which companies act, and their indirect consequences on health.
With this in mind, food and drink companies want us to consume more. And more. And more. Consumption is profit, and profit is business. They are not going to like or entertain any messages that relate to limiting how much we eat, despite the building evidence that it matters a lot. Reflecting this, they conveniently oversimplify the obesity epidemic down to ‘calories in, calories out’. They argue that the issue is just one of balance, and to solve too much, we ‘just’ need to get more exercise. The blame thus moves from our food, to ourselves - and discussions rapidly focus on laziness, instead of our obesogenic diets and food systems.
The calories in one can of Coke take almost 5kms of walking to burn off. This is not just about walking more.
2. Sugar… And sugar
The World Health Organization recommends we receive no more than 10% of our daily calories from free sugars - those that are in juice, soft drinks and processed foods. While one single calorie may take the same effort to work off, it isn’t the same on the way in. Sugars in whole fruit and vegetables are not dangerous. But when they are in juice they are more similar to soft drink. This is because the fibre in whole fruits and vegetables makes you feel full and slows the sugar’s absorption into the blood - the latter resulting in a lower jump in insulin as a result.
Arguably the worst though, is the free sugar in soft drinks and soda. Contributing nothing of value to our diets and often referred to as ‘empty calories’ - these drinks cause the most rapid spikes in insulin and are associated with obesity, diabetes, heart disease and more.
3. The [global] science is clear
Whether we look at the Global Burden of Disease Studies by the IHME, The Lancet and The World Health Organization, or to the leading technical bodies on health, or government authorities, or even leading scientists - the evidence and the messages are clear. What, how and_ how much _we eat, are making us sick. The globalisation, centralisation, homogenisation and industrialisation of our food systems has seen a major transition in our diets, and the outcome is a major driver of overweightedness, obesity and NCDs.
4. Let history not repeat itself
It is not the role of companies to protect the health of populations - their role is to sell us more of their products, driving consumption and profit. This is known to many of us, but we had better keep it in the forefronts of our minds.
Smoke and mirror tactics to deter public focus on regulation. Lies and distractions through funded, biased research. Denial of the health implications to protect profits, in direct contradiction to evidence and with known, massive public health outcomes. Does all this sound familiar? Is this Global Health déjà vu?
The 50 year journey from the first major calls for the control of tobacco to a global convention to protect the public, took too long and cost too many lives. We cannot let the same tactics delay progress again, and we should see this wolf for what it is. The product might be different but the tactics are alarmingly similar.
Not so sweet after all.
As billion dollar industries continue to feel threatened by the snowball in public opinion, as people and policy makers awaken to their dangerous and reckless behaviour, we are going to see desperate acts. Understanding the facts, and seeing their behaviour for what it truly is, is essential.
Confusion breeds complacency and apathy in policy and the public - they know this.
Let’s remind ourselves of the cold, hard facts.