Coke fails to get real about obesity

Of all the iconic, untouchable brands out there, Coke would surely be the leader. It’s like baseball and Snoopy and your grandma rolled into one.

It’s Coke, for goodness sake, our great munificent giver of sugary elixir!

But the company, once unassailable, has come under attack. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s ban on beverage portions that are bigger than an average toddler - a late-night punch line just a few months ago - is about to take effect. Soda sales are sliding, and more schools are pushing to phase sugary drinks out of the cafeterias.

So you can see why Coke might be feeling a tad defensive. And to that end, the company that for generations has been luring the thirsty with the promise of carefree refreshment is doing something unique: It’s actually addressing obesity.

In a somber - yet hopeful! - new two-minute commercial, Coke reminds us that “the nation’s leading beverage company” has been part of our lives “for over 125 years,” boasts that “we now offer 180 no and low-calorie choices,” and informs us that they now offer reduced-portion sizes for their most popular drinks. As the music swells, Coke asserts its commitment to “innovative, all natural, no calorie sweeteners” and ends with the cheerful message that we’re all going to work together on this one.

A second new spot aired last week on the season premier of “American Idol,” in between clips of the judges sitting behind giant cups marked “Coca Cola.” This, by the way, is from the same people who for years pushed the idea of Coke for breakfast.

We need to get serious about how we eat and drink in this country. We need to address the fact that if half of all Americans over the age of 2 are drinking sugary beverages each day, that’s not good. And that’s a tough road to go down if the nation’s biggest beverage company is looking the other way.

Yet the new campaign reeks of corporate self-interest.

On her Appetite for Profit blog, public health lawyer Michele R. Simon notes, “This is not about changing the products but about confusing the public. They are downplaying the serious health effects of drinking too much soda and making it sound like balancing soda consumption with exercise is the only issue.”

And in USA Today, Susan Milligan takes issue with “the disingenuous ad campaign claiming Coke is good for you as long as you go for a jog later in the day.”

Coke is not going to stop being Coke, which is fine because a Coke now and then is pure nectar. But it says a lot about how dumb the company must think we are that it applauds itself for reducing the overall calories in its beverages over the last 15 years while ignoring that obesity rates have simultaneously soared. In his book “Food Rules,” Michael Pollan points out that “research suggests that switching to artificial sweeteners does not lead to weight loss.”

So what if, instead of getting all innovative about making new magical sweeteners, the company explored ways to make its drinks less sweet overall? What if it developed new and simpler products instead of new and weirder ones? How much vitamin water do we need, anyway? (Hint: none.)

What if Coke explored bringing us back from our insatiable, high-fructose-fueled lust for overly cloying tastes? Because we’re drowning in diet drinks and getting more obese all the time. Coke would still be a beverage behemoth. But after years of inundating us with fake tastes, it might at last show us what the real thing tastes like.

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon, where this essay was posted.



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