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The not-so-sweet truth

MagazineOctober 2015 (Vol. 26 Issue 7)The not-so-sweet truth

When it comes to sugary drinks, the facts are inescapable, says Rob Verkerk

When it comes to sugary drinks, the facts are inescapable, says Rob Verkerk

Love it or hate it, Coca-Cola is addictive-albeit not as addictive as the original formula of a syrup derived from coca leaves (and traces of cocaine) and kola nuts. Today it's the sugar in the non-diet versions and the sweetness in the low-calorie versions that make for addiction, as both sugar and sweetness trigger our opioid brain receptors into wanting more.

But as the tobacco industry discovered decades ago, addictions aren't enough to guarantee a stable or growing market share. Coca-Cola, like most purveyors of sweetened, carbonated, non-alcoholic beverages, has experienced a steady decline in sales over the past decade. But it's still the biggest player, with 26 per cent of soft-drink sales worldwide compared with the next biggest, PespiCo's 11.5 per cent.

How Coca-Cola's boardroom must have been rattled when The New York Times ran its piece by Anahad O'Connor, 'Coca-Cola Funds Scientists Who Shift Blame for Obesity Away From Bad Diets', this August. It poured scorn on Coca-Cola's efforts to shift responsibility for the obesity epidemic away from sweet soft drinks and calories towards the need for more exercise. But, in fact, obesity is a complex, multifactorial disease that produces a wide range of metabolic imbalances amplified by modern diets, lifestyles and unlucky genetics.

The bitterest pill for Coca-Cola must have been the article's spotlight on the company's funding of a group of scientists-the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN)-who were set to swing the public-health debate towards exercise. Heads must have rolled as this Network was meant to appear as an independent group of experts from two American universities. Funny, then, that they should be getting their money-$1.5 million-from the biggest sweetened beverage player in the world. And it seems the GEBN's website is owned by Coca-Cola too.

The company now says, in light of the expos'e, that it was simply lending the money, while GEBN's president, Professor James Hill at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, claims none of the scientists knew how to set up a website.
Businesses owe it to their shareholders to do what they can to avoid loss of profits. Having soft drinks blamed for the current type 2 diabetes epidemic, while facing the possibility of a sugar tax and a ban on marketing soft drinks to schoolkids, present big challenges for Big Beverage. But the attempt to suggest that sweetened soft drinks are not part of the problem, given the unequivocal evidence to the contrary, was bound to backfire on Coca-Cola and Co.

After all, that's what happened when Big Tobacco attempted the same thing some three decades back. It, too, paid university experts to claim for years that there were no links between smoking and lung cancer. They even tried to say that smoking might be helpful in certain medical conditions-including bronchitis!

But when it comes to sugary beverages, the facts are now inescapable. Check out the latest report on 'Carbohydrates and Health', just released this July by the UK's Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), a group that often serves to maintain a cosy relationship between Government and Big Food.

Even the SACN could not avoid finding a positive association with one of society's biggest disease burdens: type 2 diabetes. Its experts also found conclusive evidence that sugar-sweetened beverages cause tooth decay in children-something we've known for years. But then, there's a general paucity of data (but let's not forget who controls the bulk of research funding). That aside, the diabetes link is an arrow through the heart of the beast and, to keep the analogy going, that's with an archer who's trying to avoid killing it.

The difficulty here is that the science is not clear-cut because the metabolic dysfunction caused by modern diets and lifestyles is multifactorial. This creates loopholes for companies like Coca-Cola that wish to manipulate consumers, and point the finger for the obesity and metabolic crises at others.

When working out which is more important, diet or exercise, the view of researchers like Dr Aseem Malhotra, the most outspoken NHS doctor on the subject, is essentially right (see page 18). Total calories don't really matter. It's more about the quality of the calories consumed. There's also the rate of consumption and absorption, what other foods are eaten alongside and at what time of day (or night). When nutrition is sorted and the body's energy systems are working properly, then you can enjoy the additional benefits of exercise.

There are some basic take-home messages here. One is that Coca-Cola's mainstay product, its sugar-sweetened carbonated beverage, is bad news for health. These beverages increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and tooth decay. With more appropriate studies, I have no doubt more negative associations will be found. There's also mounting evidence that the artificially sweetened, low-calorie beverages are also bad for you.

With this kind of evidence stacking up against the world's largest sweetened beverage purveyor, it's no wonder Coca-Cola is desperately seeking scapegoats.


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