Big Beverage Still Wants You to Think Soft Drinks Are Healthy

Research supported by the beverage industry seeks to dispel conventional wisdom about the ill effects of drinking soda. REUTERS/Mario Anzuon

This week, The New York Times reported that Coca-Cola Company has partnered with an organization that's urging the public to stay healthy, not through choosing a low-calorie and nutritious diet, but simply by exercising a lot more. The Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) is a nonprofit both privately and publically funded, formed to push forward the message that when it comes to staying healthy, portion control and food choices don't particularly matter if a person stays active. Coca-Cola provides GEBN with funding so the organization's scientists can conduct studies to back up the claim that soft drinks can be a mainstay of a good diet if a person maintains a healthy "energy balance."

In a video produced by GEBN, one of the researchers, Steve Blair, a professor in the department of exercise science in the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina, explains: "Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, 'Oh they're eating too much, eating too much, eating too much'—blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on," he says. "Those of us interested in science, public health, medicine—we have to learn how to get the right information out there."

Blair is one of several scientists working with GEBN on research to support the basic formula of thermodynamics. That is, weight gain occurs when one's calorie intake exceeds the output of energy through physical activity. But what if this means eating a 300-calorie lunch that consists of a can of Coke and a few rice cakes? That's low calorie, but it's certainly not the best or most efficient fuel for a 5K run.

The beverage industry has a history of funding studies that seek to dispel conventional wisdom about the ill effects of drinking soda, in part to counteract the mounting evidence that long-term consumption of sugary beverages contributes to a greater risk of obesity, diabetes and other chronic health problems. This industry-funded research also becomes more essential to business when a growing number of lawmakers support the idea of taxing sugary beverages.

In response to research indicating that sugar-sweetened beverages are bad for you, the industry debuted a number of diet, sugar-free colas in the 1980s. But in the decades that followed, studies examining the ill effects of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and saccharine found these no-calorie beverages can actually raise insulin levels, lead to intense cravings for sweet foods and cause overeating and significant weight gain.

As a result, a number of studies published in reputable journals and backed by the beverage industry have sought to bolster the claim that artificially sweetened beverages can prevent a person from packing on extra pounds.

One study published last year in the journal Obesity and funded by the American Beverage Association suggests diet cola could help a person lose weight. That study involved a little more than 300 people; half drank at least 24 ounces of diet soda per day. The researchers found people who drank diet sodas, in addition to water, lost an average of 13 pounds over the course of a 12-week period. On the other hand, people who didn't drink soda lost only 9 pounds over the same time period. According to the study, people in the soda group also reported feeling less hungry, and their cholesterol levels improved while on the diet soda plan.

It's hard to believe that soft drinks could be more beneficial than water when it comes to maintaining healthy weight. It may then come of little surprise that exhaustive reviews of the current studies on soft drinks find that the ones paid for by the industry have more favorable findings. An analysis published in PLOS One found studies on the health risks associated with soft drink consumption were five times more likely to be positive when the research was conducted with money from the beverage industry.

Incidentally, Coca-Cola's competitor, PepsiCo, announced on Monday that the company plans to do away with aspartame in their diet beverage. Beginning this week, all Diet Pepsi beverages will be sweetened with "a blend of sucralose," or Splenda, according to a company press release.

"Diet cola drinkers in the U.S. told us they wanted aspartame-free Diet Pepsi, and we're delivering," said Seth Kaufman, senior vice president of PepsiCo, in a press statement. "We recognize consumer demand is evolving, and we're confident cola-lovers will enjoy the crisp, light taste of this new product."

The "evolving" demand, no doubt, is a result of research the soft drink industry can't control.