Coca-Cola Anti-Obesity Ad: Reactions And The Research

01/17/2013 03:51 pm ET

Coca-Cola's first "Coming Together" advertisement -- aimed at addressing the company's role in obesity in America -- was released this week. And with it came a number of reactions from top figures in nutrition, food and health. Mark Bittman told New York magazine, for example:

So professional. So brilliant. So smart. And so deceitful. Seven percent of our calories come from soda -- it's the biggest single source in our diet. And the most harmful. It's good that Coke recognizes that and is beginning to apologize. But all calories are not the same -- those from soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages are actually worse than others. So it's up to us to remember that Coke makes its money selling sugar-sweetened beverages, and even when they're apologizing for that, as they appear to be doing here -- they're still selling them.

The advertisement asserts, among other claims, that the company has worked with school systems to offer bottled water and juices to children, while also making an effort to create 180 low-calorie drink options and offer smaller-sized full-calorie sodas to help control portion size. Detractors point out that it's a bit disingenuous to brag about cleaning up a problem that they were the source of: Who started selling sugary sodas in school to begin with? Who started selling larger containers with more than one portion?

"The ad is an astonishing act of chutzpah, explainable only as an act of desperation to do something about the company’s declining sales in the U.S.," says nutritionist and food industry expert Marion Nestle on her blog, Food Politics.

To whit, Coca-Cola says that the ad is part of their “ongoing commitment to deliver more beverage choices … clearly communicate the calorie content of its products.”

In other words -- an ad in the truest sense, meant to publicize certain products.

Included in the two-minute video is the following statement: "All calories count, no matter where they come from, including Coca-Cola."

But a study published last September in the New England Journal of Medicine found that, actually, calories from sugar-sweetened beverages were substantially different than calories from food. Genetic researchers at Harvard analyzed a group of people who have been participating in a longitudinal lifestyle study of behaviors like exercise and diet, including beverage consumption. The participants had, on average, 29 of the 32 total gene variants that are associated with increased risk of obesity. These genes don't guarantee obesity, but they can help promote it, in combination with lifestyle factors. At the time of the study's release, Marilynn Marchione of Reuters wrote:

The more sugary drinks someone consumed, the greater the impact of the genes on the person's weight and risk of becoming obese. For every 10 risk genes someone had, the risk of obesity rose in proportion to how many sweet drinks the person regularly consumed.

Other studies on sugar-sweetened beverages have found more health concerns that differentiate soda's calories from the same number in, say, a piece of fruit. Research suggests that high-fructose corn syrup, the sweetener used in most soda, could increase body fat over sugar as it is found in nature. As Healthy Living blogger Dr. Mark Hyman explained:

HFCS is absorbed more rapidly than regular sugar, and it doesn't stimulate insulin or leptin production. This prevents you from triggering the body's signals for being full and may lead to overconsumption of total calories.

Despite this, about half of Americans drink soda on a daily basis. Will this advertisement change that? Will it affect obesity? Tell us what you think in the comments!

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