It may not come as a surprise that Coca-Cola’s flagship product isn’t exactly healthy. Loaded with high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors and flavors, it’s about as far from an apple or a carrot as you can get. So how did the company convince nutritionists and food ‘experts’ to tell people a can of Coca-Cola can be a healthy snack?
According to the Independent, the company claims it does what all big food brands do: work with dieticians and “paid talent” to get the word out about its products. That’s not illegal; it’s not even surprising. It’s a way to do business, after all. (We run paid advertorial content on this site to help keep our content free.)
We all want experts we can trust, especially when it comes to our health and the health of our families. This couldn’t be more true in today’s foodscape, where supermarkets are lined with packaged foods all claiming to do one thing or another. It’s mind-boggling, even if you’re a long-time food industry expert, never mind someone just doing their best to buy healthy foods for their family.
But still, you have to wonder which dietician(s) would make claims recommending “refreshing beverage options such as a mini can of Coca-Cola” or “portion-controlled versions of your favourites, like Coca-Cola mini cans…” are snack-worthy items over say, celery, kale chips, or even a glass of juice.
Image: Luiz Fernando/Sonia Marie
The soda giant said it’s just trying to help people “make decisions that are right for them” and wants to “help bring context to the latest facts and sciences” about its sugar-laden beverages.
One blogger who is paid by Coca-Cola told the Independent she thinks she “absolutely[…] provided valuable information,” and would recommend a can of soda even if she were not paid by the company.
This isn't the first time the soda giant purported health benefits. The soda industry was built on the premise that these tonics could cure a number of ailments--even lead to weight loss--and Coca-Cola used the word "refreshing" for years as part of its ad campaigns.
A similar situation happened recently with Kraft Foods, which was boasting a recommendation from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The academy gave its approval to Kraft’s Cheese Singles as the first product to bear the stamp in AND’s “Kids Eat Right” campaign.
The highly processed cheese product has recently undergone an ingredients overhaul, dropping the preservative sorbic acid from its list after consumer pressure. But it’s still a highly processed food product, much like a can of Coca-Cola—mini-sized or not—is still a bubbly sugar water product. Any Frenchman worth his weight in cheese would tell you edible a Kraft Single may be, but cheese it most definitely is not.
These situations mirror the same mentality that fuel diet programs like Weight Watchers, where anything edible is essentially game as long as you manage your points accordingly. But food isn’t a game and it shouldn’t be measured by points. The only food measuring we should be doing is of the ingredients in our home-cooked meals.
Still, it’s totally understandable that food companies hire and seek the endorsement of nutritional experts and bodies in order to bring credit to their products. They also troll Facebook and Reddit and talk up the benefits and deliciousness of their products. Heck, even John Mackey, the co-founder of Heaven on Earth Whole Foods, was found trolling on chat rooms under a pseudonym to help boost his brand’s stock.
Businesses do what they have to do—whether they’re selling soda and cheese-ish slices, or tofu and kombucha, or if they’re dieticians and bloggers seeking to expand their audience.
The question isn’t whether or not these claims are right or wrong—diet is a choice, after all, even if we choose unhealthy ingredients. The real question is “why do we need to believe?” Why do we want recommendations and “experts” telling us it’s okay to drink soda because it’s a “refreshing beverage” when we know water or tea will do us so much better?
We’ve been bitten by the three-headed bug, the one Michael Pollan (and Michael Moss) labeled as Salt, Sugar and Fat—those three delicious rarities in nature we have evolved to overindulge in, hoard and fantasize over until we’re obese, diabetic and, let’s face it, looking for excuses to consume more.
These things aren’t anyone’s fault—even the corporations that now knowingly peddle their unhealthy wares started out with earnest intentions. But what are they supposed to do now? Just stop selling soda and put millions of people out of business? Evolving takes time, willfully or not, and while these companies still have a long way to go, it’s possible they can, eventually, be forces for good. Yes, it’s possible—though, whether or not it's likely is about as clear as a can of soda.
A recent study showed junk foods have the same effect on post-workout muscle recovery as foods marketed as such (think energy bars and sports drinks). Of course that doesn’t mean you should eat a burger after every barre class, but it does show our bodies are wacky and food is even wackier.
The fact remains we still only understand a smidgen of how foods really work in our bodies—so how can we be expected to resist the recommendations of brands or their paid lackeys telling us that, yes, in moderation these foodlike products can be part of a healthy diet?
We can’t, and likely won’t for at least a generation or two, but hopefully we'll evolve away from our sugar-salt-fat hoarding genes. Until then, we have to muster up the strength to know better—because we do. It's basic stuff, and two basics everyone should know by now: Sodas and waxy cheese slices aren’t the best we can do. They're not even close. We’ve got to support legislation like soda and junk food taxes, transparent food labeling and regulations that keep us safer and healthier. Because without these things, we’re still willing to believe anything... even if it’s for just one more bite.
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Top Image: Luiz Fernando/Sonia Marie