by Julie Deardorff
Coca-Cola, whose sugar-laden products have contributed to a global obesity epidemic, has partnered with a leading medical group to promote healthy soft drink consumption.
The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) announced this week that it will receive a six-figure grant from Coke to develop educational material to teach consumers about the role beverages and sweeteners can play in a healthy, active lifestyle, said AAFP president-elect Lori Heim.
Though the material will be co-developed, the AAFP retains editorial control over the content, which will appear on the group’s Web site, familydoctor.org, Heim said. “Coke shares common goals in the arena of consumer education,” said Heim, adding that the AAFP had been seeking a corporate sponsor and has worked with Coke before. “It’s consistent with our principles.”
But some outspoken critics now wonder what those principles are. They call the partnership an embarrassing conflict of interest and say the venture will—and should--undermine the credibility of the AAFP, one of the leading family doctor groups in the U.S.
"For someone trying to lose weight, the first piece of advice is to cut out soft drinks, cold turkey,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, who called for dissenting AAFP members to make their voices heard. “Will the AAFP’s educational materials make that point? I doubt it. Expect to see ‘all foods can be part of healthful diets’ and averted eyes in conversations about taxing soft drinks,” she said.
The AAFP’s Heim disagreed that telling people to go cold turkey is effective and said Coke can be a helpful corporate influence.
“I spend a lot of my time trying to explain to people how to approach food and beverages as part of healthy lifestyle,” she said. “It doesn’t help if I say ‘abstinence. You can’t get behavior change by issuing edicts.
"People have to understand how to make smarter choices to have a healthy lifestyle," she added. "Developing educational materials will help people make those decisions.”
Coke’s venture with the AAFP comes as it aggressively fights against a federal tax on sugary beverages. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Coke’s Chief Executive Officer Muhtar Kent argued that Coke didn’t make America fat; a lack of exercise should be blamed. Moreover, why just target beverages?
“Even soft drinks with sugar, like Coca-Cola, contain no more calories (140 calories in a can) than some common snacks, breakfast food and most desserts served up daily in millions of American homes,” Kent wrote.
But sugary beverages—and perhaps even diet drinks--are still part of the problem, said Barry Popkin, director of the University of North Carolina’s Interdisciplinary Obesity Center and the author of “The World is Fat.” Around the world, consumers consume Coke products at a rate of 1.6 billion servings a day, according to Coke.
Though he commends Coke for shifting its product line—more than 25 percent of Coke’s global beverage portfolio is comprised of low or no-calorie beverages—he doesn’t buy the argument that the problem is a lack of exercise.
“The food industry for decades has funded movements to encourage exercise and tried to make us think there are no good or bad foods. This is false,” Popkin e-mailed from Bangkok, where he—along with representatives from Coke and Pepsi--is attending the International Congress of Nutrition Conference. “Fruits, vegetables, low fat dairy, poultry, beans and fish are good foods. Sugary beverages are linked with obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
“Their involvement with this physicians groups appears to be another attempt to make us think their sugary drinks are healthful rather than accepting the knowledge that their sugary drinks need to have less sugar,” he added.
Coke has also partnered with the American College of Sports Medicine to promote the group’s “exercise is medicine” campaign. The ACSM says Coke “supports the value of physical activity and exercise” and the partnership allows them “to bring the message to a much wider audience than we could otherwise reach.” In 2003 Coke announced a similar partnership with the American Academy of Pediatric Dentists.
Still, the corporate alliances with health and medical groups are a slippery slope, says Nestle.
“Food industry partnerships have destroyed the credibility of the American Dietetic Association--who pays any attention to anything they say?” she asked. “The Smart Choices program has made a laughing stock of the American Society of Nutrition. Froot Loops as a 'Smart Choice?' Give us all a break. No wonder people trust what they read on the Internet more than they trust what their family doctors say."
Bonnie - Marian and Julie, I could not have said any better myself.