The empire strikes back: Coke tries to convince us that sugar's not so bad

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The world's best-known brand is hurting from decreased domestic sales and smarting from the piles of evidence that soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages are not only our biggest source of calories, but also among our most harmful. So it has struck back with a two-minute video whose ostensible message is that too many calories will make you fat (true), that those in Coke are no worse than any others (false), and that we're all in this together (ridiculous).

The video is brilliantly executed. Its honeyed, heart-rending voice-over and stirring images -- as American as a Chevy commercial -- nearly caused me to go out and buy a case myself, as I recalled those innocent days of the '50s and '60s when Coke and cigarettes and Our Country and I were all (it seemed) young together, happy and happening and eating burgers and fries like there was no tomorrow. It took me back to when Coke was the real thing, it was "it," we were teaching the world to sing together and even Mean Joe Greene was just a cutie. There's always been Coca-Cola.

Well, there were always Marlboros, too, and as chronic diseases related to metabolic syndrome surpass those from smoking, Coke is becoming a dinosaur, one that should not be replaced by aspartame-laced drinks (which have problems of their own, including, possibly, depression) but by water. Even the not-exactly-radical American Heart Association recognizes that the amount of sugar in a Coke is probably the most added sugar people can safely tolerate daily, and our average intake is two to three times that.

Here's how the Coke video starts: "For over 125 years, we've been bringing people together. Today we'd like people to come together on something that concerns all of us: obesity. The long-term health of our families and the country is at stake."

In short, Coke wants to be part of the solution. Which is too bad for them, because one of the keys to avoiding diseases caused by metabolic syndrome (a syndrome that anyone -- not only obese people -- can develop) is to avoid sugar-sweetened beverages. Metabolic syndrome, it's now more-or-less agreed, occurs when someone has three of these five chronic conditions: obesity, diabetes, problems with cholesterol or other lipids, cardiovascular disease, hypertension.

The reaction to Coke's commercial was immediate and derogatory, even in the advertising community. "Critics Jeer Coke's Entrance Into Obesity Discussion" read a headline in a MediaPost blog. "The soda giant makes an awkward first stab at addressing obesity," said AdWeek, which called the video "shameless." Among food and health writers, the response was mocking, perhaps best represented by Marion Nestle's "Coca-Cola Fights Obesity? Oh, Please."

One might want to revisit the last soda video to go viral -- the brilliant Real Bears animation of this past fall, which summed up the consequences of consuming excess sugar as well as anything I've ever seen or read. (What's sadder than a cartoon bear losing a foot? Roughly 80,000 toe, foot and leg amputations a year are due to diabetes.)

Then there's the "honest Coca-Cola obesity ad," a remix of the original Coke video. It seemed to appear within hours of "the real thing," posted by someone calling himself John Pemberton (the name of Coke's inventor), and included the line "Imagine if cigarette companies said they were doing something responsible to protect you. How would you react to that?" Exactly.

The word "chutzpah" comes to mind, but that implies some kind of sincere arrogance. The Coke video is sheer manipulation, calculated to confuse, obscure and deny.

It's not just Coke, of course, but the entire sugar industry that's involved in a campaign of lies, recently detailed by Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens in Mother Jones.

There is virtual consensus that drinking too much soda is bad for you, and it's not hard to understand the evidence. I asked Rob Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and the author of "Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease," if he'd sum it up for me. His response: "A calorie is not a calorie. Different calories have different metabolic fates in the body. Those from fructose overwhelm the liver, forcing the pancreas to make more insulin and driving more energy into fat cells. And soda is nothing but a fructose delivery system."

Soda is a fructose delivery system as tobacco is a nicotine delivery system. (And if it's not "truly" addictive but only habit forming, so much the better; it'll be that much easier to get people to cut back.) That's why added sugar, especially in liquid form, is rapidly becoming the focus of savvy public health officials, scientists, physicians, journalists, parents and even politicians.

And the ridiculous notion that government has no role in public health -- the blind "nanny-statism" argument, which ignores everything from seat belts to tobacco to guns -- is being overwhelmed by the tide of evidence, as demonstrated by a recent poll by The New England Journal of Medicine. The journal found that 68 percent of nearly 1,300 respondents worldwide "favored government regulation of sugar-sweetened beverages."

The beverage companies see the writing on the wall and will lobby, cajole, beg, plead, propagandize, lie, spend and do anything else they have to do to prevent that regulation, just as the tobacco companies did. And chances are, in time, they'll also accept regulation in the United States while aggressively increasing their marketing efforts overseas. But that won't work either, because the word is out: Coke is not part of the solution. It's a big part of the problem.


Mark Bittman, the author of "How to Make Everything" and other cookbooks, is food columnist for The New York Times.


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