Soda’s Million-Dollar Gambit to Make You Exercise More Instead of Drink Less
In 2012, Coca-Cola debuted something on its website for British consumers: a calculator that would show Coke fans how many minutes of, say, “easy walking,” yoga, or Zumba it would take to burn off the calories contained in 12 fluid ounces of its soda.
“Our Work It Out Calculator,” the website reads, “features great ideas for activities that will help you maintain a healthy balance between the number of calories you consume and the amount you use up each day. Even simple activities like gardening, walking and doing the housework can help to burn off calories.”
It’s become something of a corporate theme for Coke: The obesity problem doesn’t have to do with its product but rather with people not exercising enough to make up for all of the extra liquid calories they consume, including those contained in a can of Coke. So much so that, according to The New York Times, the company has spent millions to fund research to put scientific weight behind the notion.
The Times reports that Coke donated $1.5 million to help start the Global Energy Balance Network, a nonprofit that promotes physical activity as a means of combating obesity and other public health problems, and has given nearly $4 million over the last seven years to finance the work of two of the group’s members, including Steven N. Blair, whose work has had a major influence on federal exercise guidelines.
While the Global Energy Balance Network insists it is independent, Marion Nestle, a professor of food studies and nutrition at New York University, told the Times outright that it is a front group for Coca-Cola.
Nestle, a vocal critic of food companies, sees corporate-backed research happening across the food industry. When TakePart spoke to her in March about the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ appearing to endorse Kraft Singles, she said she makes a game out of it when she reads journal articles.
“I can guess the sponsors from what the study says,” Nestle said. “I can look at the titles and say, oh, this one must be sponsored. Otherwise there’s no reason to do this study. I would say I’m right 95 percent of the time.”
“They all come out with results that the sponsor can use to advertise their product,” she added.
The research that has been done on funding bias, mostly in the pharmaceutical industry, backs her up: Studies tend to reflect positively on products manufactured by the companies providing the money to look into them.
The Times story comes less than a week after new Gallup data showing once again that Americans are drinking less soda. The annual “Consumption Habits” poll found that 61 percent of Americans avoid soda, and 62 percent avoid diet soda. In 2002, only 41 percent of Americans said they didn’t drink regular soda. The industry is losing on the legislative front too: Mexico, which drinks more soda per capita than any other country, passed a national junk food tax in 2013, and the first such municipal measure in the U.S. passed in Berkeley, California, in 2014. The industry is also fighting against various other public health awareness campaigns, such as mandatory warning labels.
One such label, proposed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors would tell consumers that sugary drinks contribute “to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay,” but another warning system proposed by researcher in a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Public Health put the issue in terms that Coca-Cola prefers: How much exercise do the calories in one soda represent?
The researchers, who did not receive industry funding, posted information similar to what Coke has on its Work It Out calculator where soda is sold: A 250-calorie, 20-ounce soda would take five miles of walking, or nearly an hour of running, for a teenager to burn off. Even in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood in Baltimore—where public health isn’t of the utmost concern to teens looking to buy a Coke—the researchers found that the signs led to reduced consumption.