5 Of The Most Egregious Health Claims From The New US Coca-Cola Lawsuit

5 Of The Most Egregious Health Claims From The New US Coca-Cola Lawsuit

Coca-Cola has long made some pretty crazy health claims about its sugary products. A fresh US lawsuit takes aim at the company for “engaging in false and misleading marketing of sugar-sweetened beverages,” according to the lawsuit, first reported by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Image: AP

A health advocacy group called The Praxis Project is suing The Coca-Cola Company and the American Beverage Association, the trade organisation that represents the American non-alcoholic beverage industry. The nonprofit claims that Coke, with the help of the ABA, has “engaged in a pattern of deception to mislead and confuse the public”, and government agencies responsible for public health, “about the scientific consensus that consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease”.

The Praxis Project wants to see Coke publicly release files about the sugary drink’s health implications, fund a campaign educating the public about the negative health consequences of their beverages, stop any deceptive advertising and “cease all advertising that reaches children under the age of 12 in significant numbers”.

This isn’t the first time Coke has come under fire for sugar — US state legislators have attempt to tax soft drinks or limit their sales, for example. Similar efforts have been proposed in Australia, as well. But this lawsuit cites dozens of dubious claims made by Coca-Cola or its representatives. Here are some of the craziest statements:

“There is no scientific evidence that connects sugary beverages to obesity.”

Katie Bayne, Coca-Cola’s Senior Vice President of Global Sparkling Brands, said this to a USA Today reporter in 2012. That is obviously incorrect. This Harvard School of Public Health tipsheet points out two statistics, citing studies published in 2011 and 2001:

A 20-year studyon 120,000 men and women found that people who increased their sugary drink consumption by one 340.19g serving per day gained more weight over time — on average, an extra pound every 4 years… One study found that for each additional 340.19g soda children consumed each day, the odds of becoming obese increased by 60% during 1½ years of follow-up.

An article comparing a slew of other studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no link between sugary drinks and obesity, but the American Beverage Association helped fund that study. When an independent set of scientists reanalysed the data from the industry-funded study, they found a clear relationship that the first authors had (knowingly or not) obscured by introducing various extra calculations into their data.

Sugary drinks contribute two per cent of the calories of the British diet.

James Quincey, Coca-Cola’s President and Chief Operating Officer made this claim during an interview with Jeremy Paxman on BBC Two in 2013. I couldn’t find where he pulled the statistic from. But as a quick calculation, if you had one 475mL bottle of Coca-Cola every day, which contains about 200 or so calories (837kJ) and ate the recommended 2600 calorie (10,878kJ) diet for a moderately active 30-year-old man or 2000 calories (8368kJ) for the 30-year-old woman, that’s around 7.5 and ten per cent, respectively. Even if you ate 3500 calories (14,644kJ), the amount eaten daily on average by people in the industrialised world, a daily soft drink is 5.7 per cent, not two.

Plus, in the United States, a 2005 report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that carbonated soft drinks made up seven per cent of American’s calories in the period from 1999 to 2001. And if you look at carbonated soft drinks combined with fruit drinks and ades, these drinks provided teenagers 13 per cent of their calories in 1999 to 2000.

Those number certainly make the two per cent figure look a little low.

“Consuming any form of sugar is not uniquely related to insulin resistance or diabetes.”

This quote comes from a 2015 ABA press release published in response to a proposed California law that sugary drinks should have a warning label, attributed to Lisa Katic, a registered dietitian who consulted for food industry companies, including the ABA.

Now, sugary drinks aren’t the cause of type 2 diabetes but are definitely a contributor. One meta-analysis, or study that pooled other studies together, found that those who drank one or two servings of sugary drinks a day were 26 per cent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes as those who drank less than one a month. Other meta-analyses have confirmed the sugary drink-diabetes link, and another study measuring sugar intake around the world found that every 150 calorie (628kJ) increase in sugar availability per person per day came with an increased diabetes prevalence of 1.1 per cent.

Finally, the American Diabetes Association says the following:

One of the biggest risk factors for type 2 diabetes is being overweight, and a diet high in calories from any source contributes to weight gain. However, research has shown that drinking sugary drinks is linked to type 2 diabetes, and the American Diabetes Association recommends that people limit their intake of sugar-sweetened beverages to help prevent diabetes.

Coca-Cola is a “sensible” snack for “any time of day”

Nutritionist Robyn Flipse included Coca-Cola mini-cans alongside packs of almonds on her website as sensible snacks, or “select portion-controlled versions of your favourites… for a meal that won’t break the calorie bank, helping you manage your weight for better heart health”. What’s important about this claim is that Flipse was, as of March 2015, one of Coke’s “Health Professional Partners”. So, essentially, that claim was product placement; at least, that’s what Coke spokesperson Ben Sheidler compared these kinds of posts to, according to an Associated Press report.

Food news website FoodBeast reports that Flipse isn’t the only one taking money to advertise on behalf of Coca-Cola. And this article on nutrition site The Nutrition Planner also suggesting that Coke mini-cans are “perfectly portioned” was written by a “consultant for the food and beverage industry, including The Coca-Cola Company”.

“The key to preventing weight gain is maintaining an active lifestyle and eating more calories.”

Coca-Cola once helped fund a nonprofit, the Global Energy Balance Network, to put more pressure on lack of exercise as the main cause of the obesity epidemic. While the website is down and the group has since disbanded, The New York Times reported that this statement appeared on the group’s website, with two Coca-Cola funded research articles provided as proof.

Lots of people say lots of different things on diets, including whether a calorie of sugar, a calorie of protein and a calorie of fat do the same thing. However, plenty of studies have shown that eating more food makes you weigh more.

I sent these statements to Coca-Cola, whose spokesperson responded with all these links and this statement.

This lawsuit is legally and factually meritless. We take our consumers and their health very seriously and have been on a journey to become a more credible and helpful partner in helping consumers manage their sugar consumption. To that end, we have led the industry adopting clear, front-of-pack calorie labelling for all our beverages. We are innovating to expand low- and no-calorie products; offering and promoting more drinks in smaller sizes; reformulating products to reduce added sugars; transparently disclosing our funding of health and well-being scientific research and partnerships; and do not advertise to children under 12. We will continue to listen and learn from the public health community and remain committed to playing a meaningful role in the fight against obesity.

It remains to be seen whether the ABA or their affiliates made these statements with ill intent. However, without a doubt, sugary drinks play a role in the type 2 diabetes and obesity epidemic.