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We Play 20 Questions With Coke's Lead Scientist.

A few months ago, FearLess, COMMON, The Butler Bros, Jason Mraz and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) launched a joint film production and site called therealbears.org. The film followed a family of Soda-loving Polar Bears that winds up having the same issues with sugary drinks that many of us in real life are having: obesity, diabetes, and the complications that come with them.

The Coca-Cola company was quick to reach out to me in an effort to get me up to speed "on all the good work they are doing." At the time I had no idea they were about to attempt to enter the conversation on obesity. You can see their film here and you can see a translation of the corp. speak here.

A lunch was set up with their lead scientist, Dr. Rhona Applebaum. I showed up on time but she was early and had already taken a seat in the back. It took me a while to find her sittling at a tiny tabel by the window. My first impression was that Dr. Applebaum is perfectly cast for her role. She is a smart, articulate, thin, attractive and immaculately put together middle-aged woman who is in control of her emotions at all times. We ordered our lunch and began the search for common ground. I wish I could remember what she ordered to drink but I don't. It was either water or a Diet Coke. 

I don't think we found much to agree on in terms of GMOs, HFCS, Obesity or anything else. The conversation stayed friendly but it never got very real. There was a brief moment when I did get the sense that Dr. Applebaum felt that they had fought too much against the NYC limits on portion sizes. But that was only my sense and she never actually voiced those words. She also offered several introductions to the CEOs at some of the more healthy brands they had acquired. That was incredibly nice but I didn't pursue this line of conversation because it made me a bit uncomfortable. It felt like a carrot being dangled but perhaps it was nothing more than a nice gesture. 

Via twitter I collected a bunch of questions that people wanted to ask of Coke and during lunch Rhona agreed to answer them. Some are easy and silly. Others are more to the point. Below are the questions and answers unedited. 

I want to thank FearLess readers for their questions and Dr. Applebaum for her time and willingness to answer all our questions. It's tempting to dissect some of the answers but getting the dialog going it more important right now. So it's Q and A time!

Make your own conclusion.

1: Why did Coke fund the advertising to defeat Prop37? 

Along with many other sectors, including the food and beverage sector, we supported actions to defeat Prop 37.  I won’t run down the concerns Prop 37 presented—they can be found at this website http://www.noprop37.com/. But as someone who has been engaged in the labeling issue for over two decades, and to keep this answer short, here are two reasons:   

  1. The Proposition was unnecessary. For those who do not want GMO ingredients, labeling such as ‘organic’ and ‘contains no GMO’ is already available, as are a number of web sites identifying what foods/bevs do not contain GMO; and  
  2. We believe such information did not constitute material information or information of consequence ( e.g., it has no bearing on safety). The best example I can give is the required labeling for the presence of allergens. We label the presence of allergens to make sure allergic individuals have the necessary information to avoid these products vs. labeling the overwhelming majority of packaged food products that contain no allergens. GMO as a process does not present a safety risk, thus to require it to be labeled we believed does nothing to further the interest of public health.   

2: Is it true a metal nail disappears in a Coke bottle? If so, what does that mean for your body?

Stories regarding the disappearance of a metal nail are just that —stories.  Such legends continue to spring up and get recycled because they’re just too hard to ignore. You may be interested to know that the acids secreted in your stomach to digest foods are stronger than those found in most foods—including a Coca-Cola. In fact, acids in most foods are neutralized to a large degree by the saliva in the mouth long before they reach the stomach. 

3: Are there really 500 + recipes for Coke based on ingredient availability and pricing?  

No. Coca-Cola has the same unique secret recipe everywhere in the world.   In some countries the sweetener is table sugar.  In others, it’s another type of sugar called high fructose corn syrup.  Want to know more about Coca-Cola? Check out: http://www.coca-colacompany.com/brands/product-descriptions#coca-cola

4: Do you foresee Coca-Cola labeling their products in North America the same way they are required to in the EU? 

The Coca-Cola Company is committed to providing factual, meaningful and understandable nutrition information about all our products. We believe in the importance and power of informed choice and we label our products in line with government regulations in the countries where they are sold, often going beyond what is required by regulation. 

In September 2009, we were the first beverage company to make a global commitment to place front-of-pack calorie information on nearly all of our packages by the end of 2011. And we met that target! Front-of-pack calorie labeling makes it easier for consumers to identify the amount of calories in our products.  http://www.thecoca-colacompany.com/ourcompany/hal_policy_nutritional_labeling.html.

5: Does she have kids and if so, at what age was she comfortable with them drinking soda + how much? 

Yes, I have a 16 year old and I’ve allowed him to enjoy our beverages—including Coke since he was small, but my husband and I were the ones who determined how, how much  and how often—and of course when.    

Now that he’s a teenager, he continues to enjoy our beverages, but I make sure his beverage intake—and his diet in total—is sensible, varied, and balanced, that he’s getting his nutritional needs met and that he exercises regularly.  That’s my job as his Mom to give him the basics on the importance of an active, healthy lifestyle.   

When it comes to children, we respect the rights of parents and care givers to choose what’s best for their children—and we want them to have the necessary information and understanding to make informed choices.  That’s why we don’t market to kids under 12 and why we joined other beverage companies in the U.S. to remove full calorie beverages from schools.  For more information: http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/responsible-marketing; http://www.ameribev.org/nutrition--science/school-beverage-guidelines/

By the way, when it comes to raising children, the best quote that summarizes my philosophy is from Margaret Mead--“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”  I have and continue to apply this philosophy to my son—it’s the best gift and preparation I can give him—along with lots of love.  

6: Coke gets knocked a lot for being unhealthy. Any unheard of benefits to drinking it? Would make pleasure less guilty. 

My personal point of view, there are no unhealthy foods or beverages—only unhealthy diets.  I realize not all agree.  To that end, my personal view is there’s nothing “unhealthy” about a Coke.  A Coke is refreshing, it hydrates and it tastes good.  Yes it has calories—clearly labeled—and all of us need to make sure we are mindful about managing our calories.  As with the diet in total—it’s about the how, how much and how often.  The calories in a Coke come from carbs (sugars), which are essential for life.  But carbs as we know are a source of calories, so it is important to remember that all calories count when it comes to a healthy weight. 

As far as ‘pleasure with less guilt’ do not hesitate to try our diet beverages—Coke Zero has a great Coca-Cola taste, but no calories. You can also enjoy a smaller portion of Coke—our 7.5 oz. can is only 90 calories. As for me, no guilt—but I also am mindful of my total caloric intake.  To that end (and to borrow from a favorite Coca-Cola tagline, the “pause that refreshes”)—I have a ‘refreshing pause’ every afternoon around 3 or 4 pm.  

7: In NYC Coke says that consumers should have the right to decide for themselves on portion. In California you fought consumer labeling of GMO. Why? 

I refer the tweeter to the response to GMO and Prop 37 in the first question.  Prop 37 was not a referendum on the right to decide or choose GMO-free products—they already can choose to purchase such foods/beverages by looking for organic or GMO-free labels.  Since this is an attribute some consumers actively look for, companies readily proclaim/label same when they can meet the criteria for organic and/or GMO-free.  To that end, it’s a good bet that products that are not labeled GMO-free, contain an ingredient that is derived via biotechnology (although frequently in a very distant way).  Regardless of whether the product contain or does not contain GMO—all are safe—and that needs to emphasized at every opportunity so the public does not needlessly worry about consuming products that contain a GMO  ingredient—especially moms, dads and care givers who may not be able to buy organic or GMO-free.  In short, we believe in consumer choice and thus GMO-free products are labeled to make this clear to consumers and to guide their decisions if they so choose.   

8: Why is Coke in a glass bottle so darn good? 

Coffee in a china cup, a frosty mug for beer, ice cream in a cone, Coke in a glass bottle.  Some things simply have no explanation as to why they “belong” together.  They just do!  “Check out this survey on our website to see if others agree with you http://www.coca-colacompany.com/debates/fountain-vs-bottle-best-way-to-order-a-soft-drink

9: Do soft drink companies have a responsibility re: U.S. obesity epidemic or is it just a matter of personal individual responsibility? 

It’s both.  

Obesity is a serious and complex issue and there are no simple answers.  Effective solutions need to come from everyone working together – you, me, governments, businesses, health professionals and individuals.

Coca-Cola takes its responsibility in this area very seriously.  From our broad portfolio of beverages that offer consumers options to meet individual needs, to our innovations in the use of low- and no-calories sweeteners, the introductions of smaller portion-size packaging, our transparent ingredient and nutrition information, our Global Responsible Marketing Policy and our support for physical activity and nutrition education programs all over the world, we are constantly striving to do our part to help stem the tide of obesity. 

But consumers also have a responsibility to make the right choices for themselves and their families and to do that they need the necessary information, a firm understanding of what it takes to achieve active, healthy lifestyles, and the opportunities to make these choices.  This includes things such as understanding the concept of calories, energy balance, the importance and benefits of regular physical activity and the basics for assembling a sensible balanced diet. 

10: How does the Coca-Cola Company (and Dr. Applebaum personally) align, express and transmit values & #ethics to its staff and the public? 

We are focused on positively impacting all of the communities we serve. Because of this, we demand integrity in every aspect of our business. Transparency, authenticity and accountability are our most closely held values. Our Company’s Code of Business Conduct guides our expectation of accountability, honesty and integrity from our business and from our employees. All Company associates are required to follow the Code in the workplace and in the community. Read about our Code of Business Conduct in our 2011/2012 Sustainability Report: http://www.coca-colacompany.com/sustainabilityreport/downloads/2012-sustainability-report.pdf 

For me personally, my values, my beliefs and faith guide what I do. My integrity, my credibility, my reputation are very important to me and I would never do anything to jeopardize them.  To that end, I strive to ‘walk the talk’, ‘practice what I preach’ and avoid, at all cost, being a hypocrite and compromising my values and ethics.  Lord knows I’m not perfect, and I make that clear, but I do my best to be honest and real—in everything I do—both at work and in my personal life.     

11: Why can’t they make a cola with maybe 10g of cane sugar instead of a mound of HFCS? *NO* sugar substitutes. 

 We are dedicated to providing you with the same great-tasting, refreshing, high-quality products that we have been serving for 126 years. As people’s tastes and needs change we offer products that change right along with them.  We believe in providing you with a choice in beverages and are always looking for ways to meet consumer demand. Currently we have 23 different “Coca-Cola trademark products” including Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola Light, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, Caffeine-Free Coca-Cola, Caffeine-Free Diet Coke and Cherry Coke. Check out our full product list: http://www.coca-colacompany.com/brands/all. 

I know this isn’t your question, but I feel I need to say that all of our ingredients, including sugar, HFCS and low- and no-calorie sweeteners are safe.  I also understand you as an individual have your preferences.  With that—I will share your request, but to be honest, not sure if 10 g. of sugar in a 12 oz. portion of Coke will meet your expectations.  Will test it for you and get back.  

12: What role can Coke play in moving people to smaller portion sizes? 

We know people want a wide variety of beverages and packages to meet their needs for refreshment, enjoyment, nutrition and hydration. In certain markets, we are offering more variety in our packaging to help consumers manage their calorie intake and energy balance.  In 2011, we began offering more beverages in the U.S. in our 7.5-fl. oz. mini-cans, which provide 0-100 calories depending on the beverage. Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, Sprite, Fanta, Barq’s and Seagram’s Ginger Ale are now all available in mini-cans. Some products are also available in mini-cans in Australia, Canada, Korea and Thailand.  In more than 125 countries, we also offer glass bottles of many of our sparkling beverages in bottles that are 250 ml (8 oz.) or less.  For more info-- http://www.coca-colacompany.com/sustainabilityreport/downloads/2012-sustainability-report.pdf 

13. Given the obesity issue, why hasn't Coke publicly set goals for increasing sales of water and low calorie bevs and reducing sales of high cal drinks?  

In the U.S. and around the world, Coca-Cola is at the forefront of efforts to help reduce the incidence of obesity.  We believe to achieve successful outcomes, not one sector can do it alone.  To succeed we need to work across the ‘Golden Triangle’—business, government and civil society.  Collaborations and partnerships—engagement and working together—are the key, the catalysts for positive change.  Just a few of our actions - 

  • Exercise is MedicineTM,, where we are a founding partner of this program of the American College of Sports Medicine. EIM calls upon physicians to record physical activity as a vital sign during patient visits and to advise able patients to participate in at least 30 minutes of physical activity and 10 minutes of stretching and light muscle training five days a week.
  • Also the founding member of EPODE Int’l Network—its mission--to reduce childhood obesity prevalence through sustainable strategies based on Community Based Programs (CBPs). http://www.epode-international-network.com/
  • Our support of more than 280 physical activity and nutrition education programs in over 115 countries around the world. 

When it comes to low- and no-calorie beverages, we work very hard to bring consumers choices in beverages that can help manage calories.  So thank you for that important call out, because beverages are the only food (except for gum) that can give you great taste, with and without calories.  Read more about our efforts in Our Position on Obesity and Well-being Facts: http://d1lwft0f0qzya1.cloudfront.net/9b/62/c661da674cc690db3ccad9195639/obesity-position-statement.pdf

14: Even the FDA has admitted that dyes trigger hyperactivity and other problems in children.  Why won't Coke eliminate dyes from all its products?

The FDA has not stated that dyes trigger hyperactivity.   Here’s what they said,  “Although this hypothesis was popularized in the 1970's, results from studies on this issue either have been inconclusive, inconsistent, or difficult to interpret due to inadequacies in study design.” In addition, FDA evaluated recent European research that alleges a link between food colors and hyperactivity and found “that the study does not substantiate a link between the color additives that were tested and behavioral effects.” For more information: http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodIngredientsPackaging/ucm094211.htm#qahyper

15: How much coke a day should a teenager drink…if we want to prevent overweight in view of sedentarism?

When it comes to teens, energy balance – the balance between calories in from foods and beverages and calories out from physical activity - is what is most important along with a balanced, sensible and varied diet to support normal growth and development.  According to USDA food patterns, active teenagers, particularly males, have the highest energy needs.  Thus, an active teenager may be able to meet nutrient needs and have several hundred calories that can come from other foods and beverages –what are called “discretionary” calories—to meet total energy/calorie needs.  If a teen is sedentary, overall food choices, along with recommendations to increase physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviors (screen time, television, etc.), will most benefit overall health and development and promote weight management.  This also will help establish life-long healthful lifestyle habits. For more information, see Appendices 6 and 7 of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, pages 78-79. Discretionary calories from solid fats and added sugars for active teen boys can be about 600 calories.  That’s room enough for two, 20 fl. oz. bottles of Coca-Cola, and maybe a cookie. http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/dietaryguidelines.htm

 And yes, I let my 16-year-old son—soon to be 17--drink Coke and our other beverages (another of his favorites is Honest Tea)—but as part of a healthy diet.  And I also make sure he gets plenty of physical activity and sleep—for his health—body, mind and spirit—and my sanity  

16: Please ask her about the Food Safety Modernization Act. What is Coke's perspective on enforcement, impact on industry, etc.

We support the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) provisions that will further improve the safety of our food and food ingredients.  The new law will help to maintain a safe and reliable supply chain to further reduce the frequency and impact of product recalls and food borne illnesses.  These efforts will, in turn, bolster consumer confidence in the safety of our nation’s food supply.  Ensuring the safety of our products – and maintaining the confidence of consumers – is an important goal—and the top commitment for the Company—and for me as a food safety professional, consumer, parent, and citizen.  We continuously review and monitor all emerging science and scientific studies and incorporate these as warranted into our manufacturing practices to help ensure that we are always producing the safest possible product for our consumers

17: Caramel coloring contains cancer-causing 4-MEI and California forced a change. When will the less contaminated product be available everywhere?  

There is no evidence from studies involving humans that 4-MEI causes cancer.  Scientific experts, like the European Food Safety Authority, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Health Canada, who have looked at the totality of the evidence have said that consumers are not at risk from the small amounts of 4-MEI in caramel coloring.  The change in California was caused by a “right to know” law where the merits for listing 4-MEI were not reviewed by independent scientists as requested by the beverage industry.  

The safety of our beverages is demonstrated by the fact that no regulatory agency around the world has either taken them off the market or has requested that we change the caramel we use.  Nevertheless in order to avoid putting an unwarranted warning label on our products in California, we asked our caramel color suppliers to determine how to reduce the levels of 4-MEI in the caramel color while maintaining the characteristics of caramel.  

Products currently available in California are made with the new process caramel.  In order to ensure that consumers continue to be able to enjoy the same great taste of our products everywhere, products with the new caramel color will be rolled out nationally as the supply of new process caramel becomes more available. 

But to be perfectly clear—if our beverages were unsafe—they wouldn’t be able to be sold—not in CA or anywhere.  To repeat the CA law (Prop 65) is about labeling—not about safety. 

18: Soda is the #1 source of calories in the US diet. Caffeine is an addictive stimulant added to bevs that millions of children consume. Why not just eliminate caffeine?   

Let me take each in order, beginning first with calories.  Actually, NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) data 2001-2002 to 2009-2010 show that grain-mixtures (pizza, tacos, burritos, and other foods that combine numerous ingredients, but are predominantly grains) are the number one source of calories in the U.S. diet and have remained so over the last 10 years.  

Based on analyses of usual dietary intakes conducted by the U.S. National Cancer Institute, sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, sweetened water beverages (including those with added nutrients), and fruit drinks combined comprise on average nearly 7% of all calories consumed by Americans – which means that  93% of our calories come from other sources. (USDA and DHHS, 2010) However, there are age, gender and ethnic groups in the population that have higher or lower intakes of calories from beverages.

Regardless, it is important to remember that all foods and beverages have the potential of contributing excess calories to the diet—thus consumers must be mindful of the total amount of calories they consume.

And now the 2nd part of your question-- caffeine.  The Coca-Cola Company has used caffeine as a safe ingredient for more than 126 years.  And as it relates to addiction…foods and beverages aren’t drugs. The term “addiction” is often used loosely in the press, online and in everyday conversations in relationship to good tasting foods and beverages that people like to consume on a frequent basis. “Substance dependence” is the term used by many experts in the field to describe true addictions. 

While caffeine is known to be a mild stimulant, both Health Canada and the U.S. FDA have found levels up to 400 mg per day to be safe for healthy adults. Many health professionals consider 300-400 mg per day to be a moderate level of consumption for an adult (the approximate amount in three or four cups of coffee or seven to nine cans of caffeinated sparkling beverage). 

Lastly, we label caffeine levels on our products (in the U.S. and where permitted elsewhere in the world) and we also have a wide variety of caffeine-free beverages for those who do not want to consume caffeine or give to their children.  Why?  Because we believe in consumer choice—some folks want caffeine, some don’t.  Choice.  

19: What are the human health benefits of HFCS over cane sugar?    

In short, there is no difference from a benefit perspective between HFCS vs. cane sugar—they’re essentially the same.  Both are carbohydrates, providing 4 calories per gram with similar proportions of glucose and fructose. When it comes to satisfying your appetite, HFCS is equivalent to cane sugar. In fact, two 2007 studies comparing sparkling beverages sweetened with HFCS or sugar showed no difference in hunger, satiety or short-term energy intake (Melanson 2007; Monsivais 2007).  For more information, check The Coca-Cola Company Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness:  http://www.beverageinstitute.org/en_US/pages/article-science-hfcs.html, or the Corn Refiners Association:  http://sweetsurprise.com/hfcs-faqs?utm_source=google&utm_medium=cpc&utm_term=what%20is%20high%20fructose%20corn%20syrup&utm_campaign=Facts&gclid=CPvQ__6J_7MCFQSqnQodNWYAHA

We actually only asked 19 questions but "20 questions" made for a better headline. Please forgive. 

-Alex Bogusky


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Reader Comments (2)

So very interesting and yet I remain convinced that the glass is more than half empty. Say what they will but science cannot replace common sense. Thank you Alex for providing me with the opportunity to exercise my right to my own conclusion: that "the real thing" remains anything but.

January 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJill Atkinson

The process just to make the caramel coloring is the source of contamination. This industrial process involves ammonia! Chemical reactions between sugar and ammonia result in the formation of 4-MEI.

Thanks for helping the world to sing (Truth), Alex!


Blessings~

January 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIN-B-TWEEN

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