Coke Counts Calories at the Canadian Obesity Summit

At the Third Canadian Obesity Summit, Harvard Professor Darkish Mozaffarian and Coke VP Rhona Applebaum gave sharply contrasting presentations in quick succession on Thursday. Both of them talked about how different sorts of calories count in obesity, but Applebaum had a very different story to tell.

To be fair, she had a tough assignment. Right before she presented to a skeptical audience, Mozaffarian presented a very thorough review of data to support a conclusion that diet quality matters more than just calories for obesity. And along the way he observed that there’s a pretty strong consensus that the nutritional quality of sugary beverages like Coke is about as low as you can go — wasted calories.

But Applebaum did not do herself any favors when she repeatedly asserted that all calories count. To many in this audience, that claim comes across as a suggestion that all calories contribute to obesity equally. It’s more inflammatory than persuasive, especially when it comes right on the heels of a very clear explanation by a distinguished cardiologist and epidemiologist that the claim is false. Some other assertions that hurt more than they help include:

  • Even high quality diets can cause weight gain
  • More physical activity is the key
  • Coke doesn’t advertise to kids (unless they’re teens)
  • Personal choice is what really matters

Asked an easy question about whether Coke was doing anything to manage their product mix to favor healthier options, she answered that the industry had made a commitment to do so. That answer begs another question: what is Coke itself doing?

Applebaum did a few things right, too. First of all, just showing up was a good thing, though some may disagree. Honest dialogue and collaboration are needed because the food and beverage industry is facing a problem that we all must address. She repeatedly expressed a commitment to dialogue and collaboration.

But this commitment to dialogue and collaboration will only be helpful within the context of a meaningful commitment to corporate responsibility. Coke’s taking responsibility for physical activity is not very helpful in this regard. What Coke’s business affects is nutrition.

Coke Erupts, image © Michael Murphy / Wikimedia

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