“Normal or diet?” The standard question you ask when you’re going to the bar and someone orders a Coke. I haven’t counted, but in my experience, I would guestimate that eight times out of ten, the answer will be diet (“or Coke Zero if they’ve got it” if they’re men who think diets are for girls). But on Friday, the answer came back “normal”. Actually, they said “full fat”, which is the same thing.
I then berated the poor man for his lack of healthy choice (who the hell am I – I know, I know) and asked him whether he knew that every can of Coke contained 15 billion spoonfuls of sugar or whatever the figure is.
“And if you don’t burn off that sugar,” I preached (using my best “I’m already training for next year’s London Marathon” voice), “your body won’t be able to use it up and it’ll turn to FAT!”
Now, I don’t mean to be a busybody about all this, but people do tend to go on about fat intake and high cholesterol ad nauseam, but they seem to be slightly more relaxed about sugar. When I was growing up, we NEVER had fizzy drinks in the house. They were a special treat maybe once a week if we were lucky.
And my parents certainly never drank anything like the amount of alcohol I do now. If I don’t have a bottle of wine on the go at home, it’s usually because I don’t want to open the Chateauneuf du Pape because the occasion isn’t special enough and I’ve simply forgotten to stock up at the supermarket during the weekly shop.
But as if to fuel my fire and ire, a friend drew my attention to the Food Programme on BBC Radio 4 this week – all about sugar intake and how it’s now apparently tantamount to a national and global crisis.
So what does all this have to do with the Creativepool audience? This is a blog for creatives, for heaven’s sake.
Well, one thing that leapt out of the programme for me was that Coke had apparently made a two-minute commercial this year entitled Coming Together, and it’s all about how they’re being more responsible by lowering the sugar in their drinks and so on. The trouble is, until today, I had never, ever seen it.
If you have, I’m sure you’ll agree this is like no other commercial in Coke’s history. And the fact that I missed it completely does make me wonder where it was shown – especially given the massive health ramifications.
If you’ve ever been to the USA, you might have stopped off at a service station or a 7/11 to pick up a drink. Forget the venti cappuccinos in Starbucks. Those are pigmy sized compared to what I remember seeing. Have you ever seen a “big gulp”? It’s 32oz of sugary nirvana, providing you with half your daily calorie intake in the form of sugar. Hardly surprising that Mayor Bloomburg has banned them in New York – but perhaps more surprising that others haven’t followed suit.
Here’s another mind-blowing statistic: last year, the USA spent $245 BILLION dollars on treating diabetes alone. The knock-on effect is that Medicare will be broke by 2024.
Dr Robert Lustig, a neuroendocrinologist at UCSF, is the author of “Fat Chance – The Bitter Truth About Sugar”. He explains that, sometimes, we simply can’t help ourselves because sugar is so addictive. When he was working with children with brain tumours at St Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, he noted that those children were massively obese because the tumour had affected their ability to discern when they were truly hungry. The area of the brain (the hypothalamus) that controls energy balance was dead, so their brain subsequently thought they were starving. Once their insulin was suppressed, they immediately lost weight – and, interestingly, they started exercising spontaneously simply because they wanted to.
Lustig also shows that there’s a striking relationship between sugary drinks and obesity. Although it is also true that “a calorie is not just a calorie” (ie, it does matter whether that calorie is ingested via meat, chocolate, fruit or sugary drinks, because of the nutritional value – or lack of) the simple fact is that the more sugary drinks you consume, the more likely you are to become obese. And the more likely you are to become diabetic.
Of course, it would be unfair to lay this at the door of Coke specifically. Even a glass of apple juice can be bad for you in certain contexts. For instance, a 200ml glass of apple juice contains the juice of five large apples. Most people can’t eat five apples and also a complete meal, but people do often drink that and have a meal – and especially if that happens to be a ready meal which is full of sugar, then the problems start.
Coke, to give them their credit, have pledged to reduce average calories per litre by 5% by 2014 across their range. The say: “We continue to work with scientists and nutritionists on innovative things like naturally-sourced zero calorie sweeteners such as stevia.”
Linking this back to my original point about advertising, they also pledge to restrict the amount of advertising they dedicate to their full-sugar brands in the future.
If you want to read their complete pledge, you can do so by clicking here.
Just for the sake of balance, it’s worth mentioning that Sugar Nutrition UK (a lobby group funded by Britain’s sugar industry) have rejected all the arguments and data above. They claim that sugar does not cause diabetes, claiming that reports have sensationalized and overstated the findings. They also reject Lustig’s findings too, stating that major expert committees have concluded that there is no evidence of any harm attributed to current sugar consumption levels in the UK.
Although this is at variance with the findings of the Medical Research Council, a spokesperson at Sugar Nutrition UK still maintains that sugar can be included as part of a healthy, balanced diet and active lifestyle.
For now, there is apparently no definitive answer – but personally I am much more likely to accept the opinion of the World Health Organisation, and they’re currently reviewing their position on recommended consumption. Following this, the government will soon review sugar intake as its scientific advisory committee on nutrition nears the end of a major study on the subject.
From an advertising perspective, what will this mean? That Christmas one by Coke might end up looking less sugary, perhaps…
They might not be quite as dry as this one, though – the pledge by Coke. I give you Coming Together:
by Ashley Morrison
Follow me on Twitter