Almost 130 years ago, Coca-Cola first quenched Americans’ thirst and splashed its irresistible blend of sugar and, yes, cocaine, across our taste buds and brains. “Drink Coca-Cola and enjoy it” said the company’s first ad slogan. Since then, addiction and advertising have gone hand in hand to convince us that Coke is, as a 1985 ad spun it, “America’s real choice.”
But how does anyone really “choose” Coke? While the company removed cocaine from the product more than 100 years ago, the amount of sugar remains staggering. A 20 oz. bottle—just one serving according to its Nutrition Facts label—contains 65 grams of sugar. That’s about 16 teaspoons and far exceeds what the American Heart Association, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee all recommend that people consume in an entire day. Moreover, recent brain research has shown that sugar “can not only substitute to addictive drugs, like cocaine, but can even be more rewarding and attractive.”
All that science on sugar is important because it contradicts the message the company would like us to hear—that is, that we should “choose” to drink more of their product. Coca-Cola spends hundreds of millions of dollars on annual advertising to persuade us that its choice of what we should be drinking is “our” choice. But the company’s tactics to control consumer “choice” don’t stop with catchy ad slogans. Coca-Cola, like other sugar interests, also pours money into misinformation campaigns aimed at casting doubt on the growing body of scientific evidence showing that excessive sugar consumption is harmful to our health.
When we wrote about this phenomenon in our 2014 report Added Sugar, Subtracted Science, we noted that many companies have their own research institutes and initiatives and pay scientific experts to conduct seemingly independent studies to promote their sugary products. We found that “Coca-Cola’s Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness features misleading content on its website. The site confuses the science around sugar consumption and ill-health by focusing on the role of sugar-sweetened beverages in ‘hydration’ and ‘energy balance’ while ignoring the negative impacts of sugar-sweetened beverages, including their role in obesity and metabolic diseases.”
Just recently, the company established a new “research” institute called the Global Energy Balance Network. Its purpose is to persuade people that they’re focusing too much on calories and portion size and not enough on exercise. The Network claims to provide “a forum for scientists around the globe to come together and generate the knowledge and evidence-based pathways needed to end obesity.” But it doesn’t take much scratching under the surface to see that the scientists contributing to this forum can hardly claim to be independent of food industry conflicts of interest. At the top of their list of scientists is James O. Hill. A quick search of the Integrity in Science database, maintained by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, shows that Dr. Hill has ties to PepsiCo, McDonald’s, and the Sugar Association. He has also previously received consulting fees from Coca-Cola and other food companies.
Sure, “You can’t beat the feeling” of a Coke, as a 1987 ad put it. Why? It’s the sugar, of course! And, given what we now know is the toxic truth, Coca-Cola and other food companies have a lot at stake in persuading us to “choose” their sugary products over the science that tells us otherwise.