Following an exposée in The Times newspaper, Coca-Cola is reconsidering its ethos and self-image in the face of declining interest in its products
By Dr hc Harald Gaier ND DO DHomM DBotM and Robert Verkerk PhD
A recently published study from Tufts University in the US has found that sugary beverages have been estimated to kill around 200,000 people every year. That’s the equivalent of over 330 Jumbo jets going down annually, courtesy of ‘soda pops’. The authors found that 72% of these deaths were attributable to type 2 diabetes, 24% from heart disease and the remaining 4% from cancer.
Coca-Cola, the originator of the ‘soda pop’ has, it seems, been doing all it can to refuse any responsibility….echoing Big Tobacco’s thirty year cover-up. But in the wake of the scandal over VW’s emission-cheating chip, Coca-Cola finds itself under the spotlight following a detailed investigation by The Times newspaper of London. Courtesy of Alexi Mostrous’s journalism, murky dealings of how the company has tried to manipulate both research findings and public opinion were littered across the UK’s number one broadsheet newspaper.
As the name suggests, for the first 17 years, the leaves of the Coca plant (Erythroxylum coca) were used in the preparation of Coca-Cola. The naturally-occurring cocaine in the beverage gave the drinker an addictive "buzz”. The company claimed a wide range of medicinal properties and health benefits for their drink, including treatment of impotence, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headaches, nausea, and morphine addiction, as well as being a general stimulant and health booster. It proved especially popular among war veterans dealing with their morphine addiction.
Today, despite the ensuing formulation changes, people still use flat Coca-Cola as a hangover cure (there are of course many foods and nutrients that can do a much better a job at supporting detoxification from excessive alcohol exposure). Unsurprisingly, consumption as well as sales during the early period increased exponentially. According to Coca-Cola’s own published records, the company removed cocaine from the drink’s formula in 1903, substituting caffeine as the stimulating ingredient, but that was done without much fanfare. That was its first chameleon-like change. The so-called ‘hobble skirt’ bottle of Coca-Cola, over the years, also underwent some minor changes, but it still retains its original iconic, unmistakable design of the cacao pod and not the fictional ‘hobble skirt’ with which myth the company likes to hoodwink the public. That was perhaps the first sign of Coca-Cola’s impious, chameleon-like behaviour.
Busted! By the Times of London
Last Friday and Saturday, on the 9th & 10th October 2015 respectively, The Times published two consecutive, highly revealing articles by its special correspondent, Alexi Mostrous. In the Saturday piece, Alexi Mostrous exposed Sense About Science’s association with Coca-Cola. Sense About Science is the charity with which anti-alternative medicine skeptics like Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre are associated, that claims to be independent yet often acts as a voice for Big Food, Pharma and Biotech.
Simon Singh faces his comeuppance (courtesy What Doctors Don’t Tell You, www.wddty.com)
Below, I’ve attempted to capture some of the salient findings of the Mr Mostrous’ investigative reports. These are linked specifically to the UK, so one has to consider just how far the company’s tentacles stretch globally.
Recently Coca-Cola has poured millions of pounds into British scientific research and healthy-eating initiatives to counter claims that their sugary drink does, indeed, help to cause obesity. Coca-Cola has financial links to more than a dozen high profile, influential British scientists and government advisors. It would seem the main game plan has been to ensure they cast doubt on the commonly-accepted link, one supported by none other than the Harvard School of Public Health, between sugary drinks and the growing obesity crisis.
It is common knowledge that many scientists blame increased sugar consumption for Britain’s obesity epidemic, which kills up to 53,000 people a year and costs the NHS £5.1 billion annually. A report in the British Journal of Sports Medicine argued that poor diet was the cause of more disease than physical inactivity, alcohol and smoking combined.
The British Government rejected recent calls for a sugar tax on consumers despite support from the UK’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies DBE FRS (born 1949), the British Medical Association and some celebrities such as Chef James Trevor Oliver (born 1975). Coca-Cola spent millions of pounds setting up the European Hydration Institute (EHI) — an apparently independent research foundation to promote hydration, which has recommended that people consume sports and soft drinks of the sort the Company sells, which far from slaking any thirst may often arouse one. The chairman of the body’s scientific advisory board is a respected professor whose university received nearly £1 million from Coca-Cola during the period he provided nutritional advice to leading sports bodies. Coca-Cola have provided financial support, sponsorship or research funding to British organisations including UKActive, the British Nutrition Foundation, the University of Hull, Homerton University Hospital, the National Obesity Forum, the British Dietetic Association, Obesity Week 2013 and the UK Association for the Study of Obesity. Coca-Cola spent €6.6 million (£4.86 million) setting up the European Institute between 2010 and 2015. Guidance and studies it funded often recommend that the public, including children, consume sports and soft drinks of the sort sold by Coca-Cola. Two of the company’s most senior scientists are vice-chairwomen of the EHI, whose public pages on social networks make no mention of Coca-Cola, although its website reveals on a back-page that the company is a founding partner. Ron Maughan, chairman of the EHI’s scientific advisory board, is an emeritus professor of sport science at Loughborough University, which has received £817,292 from Coca-Cola in research funding since 2007. Professor Maughan, who has advised UK Athletics and the Football Association, has acted as a consultant for Coca-Cola and other drinks companies since the Nineties.
Through its trade organisations, Coca-Cola representatives have met government officials and ministers more than 100 times over a period of 36 months between 2011 and 2014, that is nearly three times each month. Coca-Cola hosts an annual parliamentary dinner. Organisations it funds often promote a message that physical activity is more important to public health than an “obsession” with obesity. In 2013, Fred Turok, chairman of UKActive, an organisation set up to promote physical activity that lists Coca-Cola as a sponsor, criticised Britain for being “fixated” by obesity at a Coca-Cola-organised event. Mr Turok quoted Steven Blair, a US academic whose university has received more than $3 million from Coca-Cola, by telling delegates: “You can be fat and fit.”
UKActive’s board includes Baroness Grey-Thompson, the Paralympian, Dame Carol Black, the Prime Minister David Cameron’s health adviser, and Liz Lowe, Coca-Cola GB’s director of corporate responsibility. Coca-Cola Company has also given money to government advisers including Dr Carrie Ruxton, a board member of Food Standards Scotland. In 2010 she co-wrote a study sponsored by the UK Sugar Bureau, the lobbying group for sugar manufacturers that found no proven association between sugar intake and obesity. On her website she states separately: “When I correlated sugar consumption with obesity levels, there didn’t appear to be any relationship.” Dr Ruxton said that the UK Sugar Bureau had no control over her study and that she highlighted a “potential concern” over sugary drinks and obesity in the report. She said that her later comments were consistent with a recent government report and that she had not undertaken work for Coca-Cola since joining Food Standards Scotland. She denies writing favourable reports for Coca-Cola.
Other government advisers who have received funding from Coca-Cola include Ian MacDonald, chairman of the state-funded scientific advisory committee on carbohydrates, who stepped down from the Coca-Cola advisory board last year. His university has since received a payment from EHI after he gave a talk at a hydration “workshop”. “I do not regard links with both industry and the government as being in conflict,” he said. “Both the public and industry are entitled to access the best advice available.”
The Coca-Cola Company is also ceaselessly advertising. It seems that the art world is a favourite backdrop. For example, at the third, bigger-than-ever contemporary African art fair (over 150 artists are exhibiting) in Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA, the prominent back-drop is a very large (±3x5 metre) red Coca-Cola placard [depicted: TimeOut London, No.2350, 13-19 October 2015, column 3 on p 103].
On 31 December 2013, Spanish researchers found that scientific papers on sugary drinks that were sponsored by or had potential conflicts of interest with the food and drink industry, including Coca-Cola, were five times more likely to find no link with obesity than similar papers that were independently funded. They recommended “special efforts to preclude funding by parties with vested interests at all levels”.
For anyone trying to lose weight, drinking soft drinks may be one of the worst things you can do – and that includes “diet’ or low calorie versions. The high sugar versions are by no means the only offenders. Nature magazine published research findings that show that artificial sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame and saccharin cause changes in the beneficial bacteria that live in the human gut and contribute in regulating our metabolism. These artificial sweeteners also reduce our body’s ability to process glucose. The side-effects conspire to play a significant role in raising the overall risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
For those feeling they’d rather go back to real sugar, think again: a Harvard study suggests one can expect a 26% elevated risk of type 2 diabetes from just consuming between 1 to 2 drinks a day. If diabetes doesn’t get you, a heart attack might. A further study that followed 40,000 men for two decades found that those who averaged one can of a sugary beverage per day had a 20% higher risk of having a heart attack or dying from a heart attack than men who rarely consumed sugary drinks.
Coca-Cola, in its characteristic chameleon-like manner, has been busy adapting itself to the variety of different consumers out there, from the ones who want the full sugar, original offering, to the groups who still feel that calorie reduction is key but will do it at the cost of synthetic sweeteners (and addiction), while the latest offering caters for those who like it ‘natural’.
To get to this place, Coca-Cola has ‘chameleonised’ its famous drink by making four versions of it available, with colour-coded labels, leaving the choice of whether or not to consume sugar, or artificial sweeteners, or a natural non-sugar sweetener with some sugar to the individual consumer.
Here are the choices:
the original sugared Coke (red label),; containing carbonated water, sugar, caramel (E150d), phosphoric acid, natural flavourings, caffeine;
the Diet Coke (vegetable extracts with sweeteners) (silver label); containing carbonated water, caramel (E150d), aspartame, acesulfame K, natural flavourings, caffeine, phosphoric acid, citric acid, contains a source of phenylalanine;
the Coke Zero (i.e. zero calories); containing vegetable extracts with sweeteners) (black label); containing carbonated water, caramel (E150d), phosphoric acid, aspartame, acesulfame K, natural flavourings, caffeine, acidity regulator sodium citrate, contains a source of phenylalanine, and;
Coca-Cola Life (lower calorie drink from natural sources); containing vegetable extracts with sugar and sweeteners) (green label) - carbonated water, sugar, caramel (E150d), natural flavourings, caffeine, phosphoric acid, as sweetener: steviol glycosides. Steviol glycosides are high intensity sweeteners, 250-300 times sweeter than sucrose; they are isolated and purified from the leaves of the Stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana), which hails from the Amazon. Stevia typically leaves behind a distinctive and somewhat unpleasant aftertaste which the 22 g of sugar per 330 ml can seems to be designed to obscure. This amounts to almost the total daily “free sugars” quotient for an adult, consuming 2000 kcal a day, as recommended by the UK’s Scientific Committee on Nutrition (SACN) in its latest report on carbohydrates. Some of these also come in different flavours, such as ‘cherry’, or ‘lemon & lime’, or ‘coffee’. These flavour variations do not, however, affect the four basic formulae. The distinction between them seems to reside principally in the variations of the sweetening agents used and the chameleonic colours of the labels. It remains to be seen how well Coca-Cola can manage against the sliding tide of consumer interest in its products.
Helping to burst the sugary bubbles
The fact that consumption of sugary drinks is on the decline is testament to the fact that public awareness of the risks associated with sugary drinks is on the increase, despite the efforts of Coca-Cola and others. Sales of the low calorie versions are also on the decline.
The bottom line is we all need to adapt to lower levels of sweetness intensity in beverages, whether this sweetness comes from sugar or sugar replacements, natural or otherwise. This is because the non-nutritive sugar replacements appear to trip the same opioid receptors in the brain as sugars, causing both addiction and an insulin response as the body is ‘tricked’ into thinking it’s been exposed to sugar.
Yes, we could do with more research, but it needs to be honest, solidly founded and truly independent. And that’s easier said than done in a world — as Alexi Mostrous points out— in which the corporations exert so much control over research institutions, especially as they relate to the food industry.
The big move has to be one in which we — the grassroots — say no to an ever greater degree to highly sweetened foods and beverages, whether this sweetness comes from sugar or a non-nutritive sweetener. Adjusting the palate of children is right up there as a paramount concern. That typically means trying to help kids to abstain from eating regularly highly sweetened foods.
The trend has already begun, with soft drinks now hitting their 10th year in decline. Two facets of public education will continue to drive the trend. One relates to the damage the products do to teeth, guts and brains, leading to premature disease and death. The other relates to the distorted science and twisted corporate ethos that now means it is no longer plausible for any health authority to claim that ‘soda pops’ might be an acceptable component of any healthy diet and lifestyle. This notion, one to which Coca-Cola continues to try to cling to, is rotten to its core.
Please play your part in educating those around you, especially if they are ‘soda pop’ or fizzy drink addicts.