- Getty Images/Spencer Platt
From 2011 to 2015, PepsiCo and the Coca-Cola company gave money to 96 national health groups, including the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and lobbied against 29 public-health bills aimed at improving nutrition.
That’s according to a report published Monday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, which provides another window into the myriad ways in which members of the US food industry have bankrolled public-health initiatives to try to make their products appear less harmful than they are.
The report is eerily reminiscent of last month’s searing New York Times revelation that an American sugar trade group paid Harvard scientists in the 1960s to publish research portraying sugar as less unhealthy than it actually is.
Public-health experts say Pepsi and Coke’s strategy harks back to the days of Big Tobacco.
“First, they attack the science. Then, they fund community groups, promote exercise as a solution, and say they’re self-regulated and don’t need to be regulated by an outside source,” Marion Nestle, a New York University professor of public health and nutrition and the author of the book “Food Politics,” told Business Insider. The authors of the most recent report seem to agree.
“Lessons can be learned from the history of tobacco companies, which have long given money to sympathetic organizations that deal with domestic abuse, hunger, and minority advancement,” they write. “Now, most organizations refuse tobacco money. Perhaps soda companies should be treated similarly.”
Over the past two years, the American Beverage Association, the soda industry’s main lobby group, has invested millions of dollars fighting laws to tax and label sugary beverages. Last year, Coca-Cola was accused of pumping money into misleading research that championed exercise over dietary changes for health and weight loss. The nutrition nonprofit it funded that was part of those efforts has since disbanded.
The science is in: Sugary beverages are really, really bad for us
In November of last year, the Food and Drug Administration announced that Americans should eat and drink no more than 50 grams of sugar – less than the amount in a 20-ounce bottle of Coke – each day.
The new proposal has been years in the making: Chatter of the need for a cap on sugar has been circulating among consumers, lawmakers, and public-health advocates since research in the early 2000s first linked our excessive consumption of the stuff with obesity, weight gain, and other health problems – especially in children.
In a systematic review of 50 years of studies published in the American Society for Clinical Nutrition in 2006, researchers found “strong evidence for the independent role of the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, particularly soda, in the promotion of weight gain and obesity in children and adolescents,” they wrote in the paper.
The research demonstrating that sugary beverages are bad for us continues to pile up. Another more recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine made the links between sugary drinks and America’s obesity problem more explicit:
“The science base linking the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages to the risk of chronic diseases is clear,” the authors – seven experts in public health, nutrition, and economics – wrote.
One of the reasons soda may play such an important role in obesity has to do with how sugar is processed in the body.
- Hollis Johnson
All carbohydrates – bread, cereal, or potatoes – are ultimately broken down into glucose, which circulates in our blood and gives us energy. Sugars get broken down quickly and tend to raise blood glucose the most dramatically.
But while many foods that are high in natural sugars (fruit, milk, etc.) also contain other nutrients like protein and fiber that help build strong muscles and keep us feeling full, soda does not.
A traditional 12-ounce can of Coke, for example, has 140 calories and 39 grams of sugar but no protein and no fiber to help round out the impact of the sugar. This is part of the reason sugary drinks, like Coke or Gatorade, are called “empty calories” – they are likely to contribute to weight gain because they don’t fill you up.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, roughly one-third of all the calories Americans get from added sugars are from soda and sugary drinks. (We get the other two-thirds from processed foods like snack bars, cakes, breads, and ice cream.)
“The correlations between soda and obesity are extremely strong,” Nestle told me.
The American Beverage Association provided Business Insider with the following comment:
“Yes, we may disagree with some in the public health community on discriminatory and regressive taxes and policies on our products. But, we believe our actions in communities and the marketplace are contributing to addressing the complex challenge of obesity. We stand strongly for our need, and right, to partner with organizations that strengthen our communities.”