Coca-Cola Attempts to Go Healthy With Stevia-Sweetened Coke Life

There's plenty of sugar in the new soft drink too.

(Photo: @CocaCola GB/Twitter)

Jun 19, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It’s hard to know where to begin in dissecting Coke Life, which is Coca-Cola’s latest attempt to stem the rising tide of bad publicity and research that relentlessly links its sugary beverages to obesity and other health problems—all of which has sent soda sales south.

I guess, though, we should start with what Coke Life supposedly is. Released in Argentina and Chile last year and soon to debut in the U.K., Coke Life is a “low-cal” alternative to regular Coke, made with the (kinda, sorta natural) sweetener stevia—but also, it’s worth pointing out, plenty of sugar.

True, as Bloomberg Businessweek reports, Coke Life has 89 calories per can, about 50 less than a can of regular Coke. But it contains the equivalent of four teaspoons of sugar.

That may not sound like a lot, but the American Heart Association's recommendations allow for about six teaspoons a day for women and nine teaspoons for men. For its part, the World Health Organization recently lowered its recommendations even further—to six teaspoons a day for adults with a normal body mass index, regardless of gender.

That’s because the more we learn about what sugar does to our health (and the staggering amounts of it we tend to consume unwittingly—e.g., a tablespoon of ketchup has a teaspoon of the stuff), the more it seems we need to be drastically cutting back on it, like, now.

Which hasn’t been good for Coke, whose business is still, by and large, about pumping us full of liquefied sugar. Sales of soda in the U.S. have declined for nine years now, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, and the drop seems to be accelerating—tanking 3 percent last year, which was more than double the drop the year before.

With the exception of the occasional industry-sponsored “scientific” study, diet soda hasn’t been faring much better. Reputable research has repeatedly linked consumption of artificially sweetened beverages to weight gain and obesity, a paradox that scientists have yet to fully explain. (The current theory is that artificial sweeteners may cause you to crave more real sugar.)

Given the mounting evidence that too much sugar is essentially toxic, it’s thus downright Orwellian that Coke is marketing its latest delivery system for superfluous amounts of sugar as Coke Life. In a green can, no less. As we learned from research conducted at Cornell last year, when consumers see green, they all too often think “healthy.”

“A slightly-better-for-you junk food is still junk food,” NYU nutritionist and food studies professor (and food industry gadfly) Marion Nestle has said. Where did I see that quote recently? Oh, yeah, in a New York Times op-ed by Mark Bittman.

Bittman has been railing against big food for years, but with Times columnist Maureen Dowd apparently on vacation, he’s been using her slot to ramp up his attack in op-eds that have been cruising to the top of the most-emailed list. Tuesday’s jeremiad was titled “Parasites, Killing Their Host.” (You’ve got the big food companies, and you’ve got the rest of us; guess who’s the parasite here and who’s the host.)

In the course of his takedown, Bittman cites the work of Ivy Ken, an associate professor of sociology at George Washington University, who’s written a paper on how big food is trying to market itself as a socially responsible player in the battle against obesity by “working together”—all the while plying the public with unhealthy food. In terms of the corporate strategy behind the new Coke Life, Ken’s words, quoted by Bittman, are particularly incisive: “Their part of working together is re-engineering their products; our part of working together is to buy more and more of this food that’s not real.”