by Marion Nestle

Search results: Coca Cola

Apr 23 2014

POM v. Coca-Cola at the Supreme Court: The Mind Boggles

You might think that the Supreme Court of the United States would have more important things to do than to weigh in on which of two beverage companies puts less misleading labels on its products, but apparently not.

The highest court in the land takes POM Wonderful’s accusation against Coca-Cola seriously.  Coke’s Minute Maid juice, POM says, is advertised in ways that mislead the public.

POM should know.   It’s been under fire from the Federal Trade Commission for equally absurd label claims.

Here’s the Coca-Cola product at issue.

And here’s what the label says, in case you can’t read it (with emphasis added):

Enhanced Juice/Minute Maid/100% Fruit Juice Blend

Omega-3/DHA/HELP NOURISH YOUR BRAIN

5 Nutrients to Support Brain and Body

Pomegranate  Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices

From concentrate with added ingredients and other natural flavors

Never mind the nutritional quality or the ridiculous structure/function claims on this particular product (here’s Fooducate’s analysis from 2009—it has 29 grams of sugars, among other things).

POM doesn’t want Coke getting away with selling cheap grape and apple juices as pomengranate juice and undercutting their prices.  Coke’s drink is 99% apple and grape juice; it contains less than 1% pomegranate or blueberry juice.  You would never know that from looking at the label.

Why is the court interested?  The Minute Maid label is legal by FDA standards.  Therefore, can the label be considered misleading?

Coca-Cola won in the lower court, but the Supreme Court seems sympathetic to POM (here’s the transcript of the hearing).

The New York Times account has the best quotes:

Kathleen M. Sullivan, a lawyer for Coca-Cola, said consumers were not misled.

“We don’t think that consumers are quite as unintelligent as Pom must think they are,” she said. “They know when something is a flavored blend of five juices and the nonpredominant juices are just a flavor.”

Justice Kennedy frowned. “Don’t make me feel bad,” he said, “because I thought that this was pomegranate juice.”

It also quotes from Justice Alito:

You don’t think there are a lot of people who buy pomegranate juice because they think it has health benefits, and they would be very surprised to find when they bring home this bottle that’s got a big picture of a pomegranate on it, and it says ‘pomegranate’ on it, that it is — what is it — less than one half of 1 percent pomegranate juice?”

Where is the FDA on all this?  Blame its inaction on the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which allowed ridiculous health claims on food labels and forced the FDA to keep hands off.

This outcome of this case, silly as it is, will be fun to watch.

Feb 7 2014

Coca-Cola marketing scores again

Far be it from me to defend Coca-Cola’s advertisements.  They have only one purpose: to get you to buy more of the company’s flavored, colored, caffeinated water with nearly a teaspoon of sugar per ounce.

Drink a 20-ounce Coke?  That’s 18 teaspoons.

But you have to hand it to Coke’s marketers.

They just got me to write about the fuss over the company’s “It’s Beautiful” Super Bowl ad, which shows people of all colors and kinds singing America the Beautiful in—can you believe this?—foreign languages.

The response?  Tweeted bigotry:

WTF? @CocaCola has America the Beautiful being sung in different languages in a #SuperBowl commercial? We speak ENGLISH here, IDIOTS.

What amazes me about the response is that Coca-Cola has been doing commercials like this for decades.

Remember these?

Why this sudden outpouring of xenophobia and homophobia?  

It’s disturbing to think about why this is happening now, but I won’t be surprised if the controversy brings Coke lots of favorable publicity and helps the company sell even more sugary beverages.

Oct 14 2013

Annals of Nutrition Science: Coca-Cola 1; NHANES 0

I got called by a couple of reporters asking for comment on a paper just published in PLoS One, an online, open-access—and highly respected (at least until now)—medical journal.

The paper examines the validity of calorie-intake estimations obtained from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 1971 to 2010 (click on Download to see the entire paper).

Its “shocking” conclusion: people underreport calorie intake on surveys.

My first comment to reporters: duh.

The authors present—-as if it were a bombshell—-something that has been known for years: people underreport food intake, usually by a third or more, and obese respondents underreport even more.   The study quantifies the degree of underreporting and comes to conclusions no different from those reported for decades.

Question #1: Why would anyone do a study like this?  Answer:  Look who sponsored it: Coca-Cola!

Question #2: Why would Coca-Cola want to fund a study to cast doubt on information derived from NHANES:  See the Abstract:

The confluence of these results and other methodological limitations suggest that the ability to estimate population trends in caloric intake and generate empirically supported public policy relevant to diet-health relationships from U.S. nutritional surveillance is extremely limited.

And see the paper’s conclusion:

As such, there are no valid population-level data to support speculations regarding trends in caloric consumption and the etiology of the obesity epidemic.

Got that?  If data from NHANES are not valid, then studies showing a correlation between sodas and obesity are not valid, and recommendations to drink less soda are unjustified.

This study, then, is a classic example of why food industry sponsorship of nutrition research is so pernicious.  Coca-Cola is systematically recruiting sympathetic nutrition researchers to cast doubt on science linking soda consumption to health problems.

Question #3: Why would a prestigious journal like PLoS One publish something like this?  The science in this article passed peer review.  Evidently nobody considered that politics might have something to do with the design of the study and its conclusions.

I’m guessing that PLoS One editors have become complacent.  The journal just came up smelling like roses in a Science Magazine sting operation examining the quality of peer review in open-access scientific journals.  The author sent an evidently false paper to hundreds of such journals.  Of 106 that said they did peer review, 70% accepted the paper.  But PLoS One turned it down for the right reasons.

If you think that science has nothing to do with politics, Coca-Cola vs. NHANES is a good reason to reconsider.

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May 10 2013

Coca-Cola pledges to fight obesity — again

Coca-Cola’s announced its new “global commitments to help fight obesity” in a full-page ad in the New York Times.

The company says it is committed to several actions in the more than 200 countries in which it sells products:

  • Offer low- or no- calorie beverage options in every market;
  • Provide transparent nutrition information, featuring calories on the front of all of our packages;
  • Help get people moving by supporting physical activity programs in every country where we do business;
  • Market responsibly, including no advertising to children under 12 anywhere in the world

The company’s press kit contains:

As might be expected, the announcement has gotten a lot of press, most of it highly laudatory (see below).

How are we to interpret all this?  It sounds good if you don’t think about it too carefully.  Coke has made these kinds of promises before with not much to show for it.  And the company is still focusing on personal choice and physical activity.

It can’t advise people to drink less soda.  Business is already bad enough.  Sales of Coke are flat in the United States, or declining.  The company needs to sell more, not least to pay the salary of its President, Muhtar Kent, who earned $26 million last year.

This looks to me like a major public relations campaign to keep vending machines in schools and head off federal, state, or local soft drink taxes or soda caps.

The only way Coke can really help address obesity and poor diets is to sell less soda—the one thing its stockholders will not allow.  And the company is doing everything it can to fight city and state soda taxes, portion size caps, or anything else that might reduce sales.

It will be interesting to watch this one play out.  Stay tuned.

Here are some of the press accounts:

MSN Money: Is Coca-Cola’s anti-obesity campaign the real thing?
Bloomberg: Coca-Cola to Show Calories While Ceasing Ads for Under 12s
Washington Post: Coca-Cola promises to make diet drinks more widely available around the world
Businessweek: Coca-Cola to Show Calories While Ceasing Ads for Under 12s (1)
Wall Street Journal: Coca-Cola to Stop Marketing to Kids
National Post: Coca-Cola Announces Global Commitments to Help Fight Obesity – National Post
Economic Times: Coca-Cola goes global with anti-obesity push; to make lower-calorie drinks
 Financial Times: Coke tries to fend off obesity criticism
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Apr 25 2013

Coca-Cola: obesity is your fault, not ours

A reader sent me an e-mail received from Coca-Cola:

As you know, obesity is an issue that affects all of us. At Coca-Cola, we believe we can help solve it by working together. As you heard back in January, we are committed to doing our part – by offering more low- and no-calorie choices, more portion controlled packages, and useful calorie information in more places than ever before.

As part of our ongoing commitment to provide more information about calories, we want to share a new “Calorie Balance”  infographic that we created. This is posted on our Company website here.

Our infographic is a simple, easy tool that informs people about where Americans’ calories are coming from and what we can all do to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle.

It communicates government data and third-party published studies in a compelling way, showing that too many calories consumed as compared to those expended can lead to weight gain.

OK.  I can’t resist.  Here’ just one piece of Coke’s infographic:

Guess what #4 is.   And what food is responsible for more than one-third of calories from sugars in U.S. diets?

The infographic gives no guidance about food choices or amounts best for health, but it is quite specific about physical activity.  Do lots!

Overall, I read the infographic as saying “Hey, it’s not our sugar-water that’s making you put on weight.  It’s up to you to choose what you drink and work it off with physical activity.”

Getting active is always good advice, but doesn’t Coke’s phenomenally comprehensive and astronomically expensive  marketing offensive have anything to do with food choices?  Coke must think all that is irrelevant.

I think it’s quite relevant.  And so does the research.

Jan 16 2013

Coca-Cola fights obesity? Oh, please.

In case you missed all the publicity about Coca-Cola’s new ad campaign positioning the company as a force for public health, take a look at its new two-minute TV ad.

The video—how much do these things cost?—argues that the company is producing lower-calorie products in smaller sizes and promoting community activity, that all calories count, and that it’s up to you to fit Coke into your healthy active lifestyle.

The ad is an astonishing act of chutzpah, explainable only as an act of desperation to do something about the company’s declining sales in the U.S. and elsewhere.

If Coke really wanted to help prevent obesity, it would STOP:

  • Targeting its “drink more Coke” marketing to kids.
  • Targeting marketing to low-income minorities.
  • Lobbying and spending a fortune to defeat soda taxes and caps on soda sizes.
  • Fighting attempts to remove vending machines from schools.
  • Pricing drinks so the largest sizes are the best value.
  • “Bribing” health professions organizations to shut up about research linking sugar-sweetened beverages to poor diets and weight gain.
  • Pushing Coke sales in developing countries where rates of obesity and related conditions are skyrocketing.

Instead, it’s doing all these things, but not talking about them in videos.

The company is supposed to be releasing a second video tonight, explaining how to work off the “140 happy calories” in a soda by dog-walking, dancing, or laughing. If only.

I can’t wait.

Addition, January 18:  Someone who calls himself John Pemberton has gone to the trouble of presenting the 2-minute commercial with a somewhat different narrative—the real story about Coca-Cola and obesity.  If that link doesn’t work, try this one.

Nov 10 2011

Coca-Cola v. Grand Canyon: donations come with short strings

I’m always saying that food company donations and partnerships to health and environmental Good Causes end up doing more for the companies than the recipients.  Money always talks.  Accepting corporate donations comes with strings that create conflicts of interest.

The latest evidence for these assertions comes from the Grand Canyon’s efforts to get plastic water and soda bottles out of the park.  These account for a whopping 30% of its waste.

According to the account in today’s New York Times, Coca-Cola, one of the park’s big donors, convinced the National Park Service to block the bottle ban.

Stephen P. Martin, the architect of the plan and the top parks official at the Grand Canyon, said his superiors told him two weeks before its Jan. 1 start date that Coca-Cola, which distributes water under the Dasani brand and has donated more than $13 million to the parks, had registered its concerns about the bottle ban through the foundation, and that the project was being tabled.

The Times quotes Mr. Martin:

That was upsetting news because of what I felt were ethical issues surrounding the idea of being influenced unduly by business…It was even more of a concern because we had worked with all the people who would be truly affected in their sales and bottom line, and they accepted it.

It also quotes a Coca-Cola spokeswoman, Susan Stribling:

the company would rather help address the plastic litter problem by increasing the availability of recycling programs. “Banning anything is never the right answer…If you do that, you don’t necessarily address the problem…You’re not allowing people to decide what they want to eat and drink and consume.”

And throw plastic bottles into the park, I guess.

This sordid episode explains why Coke gives millions to the Grand Canyon.  In a word, greenwashing.

Oops.

Coke needs to change its position on this one.  And so does the Park Service.

 

Apr 21 2011

More on Oxfam’s anti-poverty partnership with Coca-Cola

Among the many thoughtful comments on yesterday’s post is one from the Director of Oxfam America’s Private Sector Department, Chris Jochnick, who writes that I did not “quite capture the scope and intent of this project.”

As part of our work, Oxfam has a responsibility to engage with global corporations, through both collaboration and campaigns, in order to have constructive dialog on their business practices.

….Throughout the work, Oxfam has maintained complete independence including the ability to undertake advocacy against either company if the situation warranted. The Coca-Cola Company and Oxfam America shared the costs of the collaboration roughly in the proportion of 2:1, with The Coca-Cola Company contributing two-thirds of the costs (US $400,000) and Oxfam America contributing one-third of the costs in kind including staff time.

Unrelated to the study, The Coca-Cola Company made an earlier donation of $2,500,000 to Oxfam between 2008-2010 for humanitarian work in Sudan, with an emphasis on work related to water, sanitation and hygiene.

….Our independent voice keeps Oxfam’s approach to private sector collaborations dynamic and honest.

Let me add a bit more about what I think is wrong with this picture.

The goal of Coca-Cola is to sell more Coca-Cola.  The goal of Oxfam is to address world poverty.  I’m having trouble understanding how these goals could be mutually compatible.

Coke sales in the United States are flagging.  Last year, three quarters of Coke’s revenue derived from sales outside of North America in emerging economies where rates of obesity are increasing rapidly.

Sugary beverages like Coke are increasingly associated with obesity and its health consequences, problems now rampant in developing economies.

In the past year, Coke has embarked on an aggressive campaign of contributions to potentially critical groups such as the American Academy of Family Physicians, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Save the Children, and now Oxfam.

These groups are now highly unlikely to advise their constituents to cut down on sugary sodas.  If nothing else, sponsorship buys silence.

Oxfam may have done the work of its Poverty Footprint Report without company interference.  It is what is not in the report that is so much in Coke’s interest.

For just under $3 million, Coke has purchased an endorsement from Oxfam of its “anti-poverty” practices and silence on the role of sugary drinks in obesity.  This kind of public relations is well worth the price.

What does Oxfam get in this bargain?  The money, of course, but at the cost of serious questions about the credibility of its report and its independence.  Perhaps these are tolerable, but what about loss of respect?

I score this as a win for Coca-Cola.