Using convoluted logic to protect their profit margins, Big Soda, and particularly Coca-Cola, is using some of the same strategies in China that got them into public relations trouble in the U.S. Sweetened beverages have been identified as a major contributor to the rising rate of obesity and diabetes around the world, including a meteoric rise in China.
In light of this evidence, many public health organizations are beginning to take a stand against added sugar, including the American Heart Association (AHA), the American Diabetes Association (ADA) and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Although science has demonstrated glucose and fructose are metabolized differently, some public health organizations continue to claim obesity is a matter of consuming more calories than you burn. Evidence shows sugar wields harmful metabolic effects beyond simple calories and appears to be addictive, leading some to suggest elimination and not moderation is the best option.
However, this would significantly impact Big Sodas profit margin as all of their products contain sugar or sugar substitutes. To offset the push for better health through eating nutritious foods, the food, chemical and biotechnology industries built an intricate and powerful system to manipulate public and scientific opinion.
For instance, Coca-Cola funded the Global Energy Balance Network aimed at producing confusing information about soda science.1 Once their astroturfing tactics were discovered, the group was disbanded.
In much the same way AstroTurf mimics real grass, astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization so it appears as though it originates from a grassroots effort.
One 12-ounce can of regular soda has 33 grams of sugar and 36 grams of net carbohydrates, far more than your body can safely handle in a day. As soda sales are dropping in the U.S., Big Soda has identified a market ripe for the picking, where oversight is limited and free media coverage is not allowed.
Big Soda Finds a Burgeoning Market in China
Today, China is Coke's third largest market by volume,2 as the industry battles public opinion after the U.S. Surgeon General called on all Americans to fight obesity by reducing their sugar intake. Big soda has not given up without a fight as they blocked New York City's ban on large drink sizes and lobbied against soda restrictions.
The industry has funded exercise specialists to promote physical activity as the best solution to obesity in an effort to divert attention away from the proven link between what you eat and your weight. As sales are plummeting, the industry recognizes it's losing the battle.
A Gallup Poll3 in 2014 revealed 63 percent of Americans were actively trying to avoid soda, as compared to 41 percent polled in 2002.4 As the number of nations raising a price on sugary drinks with taxes continues to rise, this year topping 30, the U.S., China and Australia have not followed suit.5
Each of these countries struggle with an epidemic of obesity and health related problems, including cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. China continues to have vastly underdeveloped markets for products associated with an "American way of life," which Big Soda, and particularly Coca-Cola, has been able to take advantage of.
With a substantial population, huge growth potential remains for the conglomerate, making it "critically important to the future growth of our business," according to Coke chairman of the board and former chief executive officer Muhtar Kent.6
Industry Efforts Wildly Successful Without Watchdog Organizations and Free Media
Coca-Cola's efforts have been dangerously successful, in part because of their close relationship with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) — a corporate funded organization founded by a former Coca-Cola senior vice president.7 Ostensibly, the organization claims to bring together scientists from industry, government and academia to "provide science that improves public health."
The organization is funded by food and beverage corporations, such as Nestle, McDonald's, Coke and PepsiCo, and has established standard levels of giving expected from their participating organizations.
However, evidence suggests the organization is a front aimed at influencing science and policies to benefit corporate interests over public health. According to internal documents, the organization is funded by the food and agriculture industries with influence extending to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know8 through freedom of information act (FOIA) requests, reveal the CDC director, charged with preventing heart disease and stroke, has tried to help ILSI influence the WHO to back off anti-sugar talks. Ever since ILSI's inception, Coca-Cola has maintained close ties and has gone to great lengths to shift the blame for obesity away from sugar and onto exercise.
Their close relationship in China goes significantly further than what the ILSI has been able to achieve in the West.9 In an investigative report published in the BMJ by Susan Greenhalgh, an anthropologist at Harvard University who has studied science policy in China, alleges Coke has quietly influenced how China has tackled growing rates of obesity by promoting exercise over nutrition.10
She began corresponding with scientists in China as she was originally interested in chronicling the history of obesity in the country. China's obesity rate has been especially pronounced; in 1991, 20 percent were obese, but by 2011 it had risen to 42 percent of the population. According to Greenhalgh,11 "The major takeaway is that Coca-Cola's influence is global. It has been able to quietly influence the science and policy of chronic disease, including obesity."