The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Sustainability Series: Focus on the Fight Against Obesity with Coca-Cola

Sustainability Series: Focus on the Fight Against Obesity with Coca-Cola


December 23, 2012

Established in 1886, The Coca-Cola Company is the world’s largest beverage company offering more than 500 sparkling and still brands that include Coca-Cola®, Diet Coke®, Fanta®, Sprite®, Coca-Cola Zero™, vitaminwater®, POWERADE®, Minute Maid® and Georgia™ Coffee. Consumers in more than 200 countries enjoy the Company’s beverages at a rate of nearly 1.8 billion servings a day. We talked to the Coca-Cola Live Positively team in 2010 about their initiatives that protect the environment, conserve resources and enhance the economic development of the communities where they operate. Recently, we caught up with Ben Sheidler, Sr. Manager, Public Affairs & Communications for Coca-Cola, about their current efforts to tackle one of our planet’s biggest health crises – the fight against obesity.

Why is the fight against obesity an issue related to sustainability?

At Coca-Cola, we believe our business is only as strong as the communities in which we operate. That means we have a role to play when it comes to addressing global challenges, like obesity. This issue impacts all of us – our associates, customers, family, friends and fans around the world. Obesity is a serious global problem, and here in the U.S., more than one-third of American adults are characterized as obese. Addressing this epidemic is key to building strong, healthy, sustainable communities for today and the future. 

We know there are no simple solutions to this complex challenge of obesity. To find real solutions, we believe it will require collaboration from all parts of society. This includes meaningful efforts from companies like The Coca-Cola Company. 

Particular food and beverage companies are viewed by some as major contributors to the obesity problem in this country. What is Coca-Cola doing to address these types of concerns? 

Obesity is not caused by any one food or beverage alone. But, that doesn’t mean companies like ours don’t have a role to play. We know there are many factors that can lead to obesity. Based on the current body of science, obesity is best addressed by understanding energy (calorie) balance – or how many calories we’re consuming versus expending. An imbalance occurs when we consume more calories than the amount we “burn” through exercise and other activities, which can lead to weight gain. We’re focused on finding real solutions that address this imbalance in calories, which many of us are struggling with every day. 

We know that all calories count, including those from our beverages, like Coca-Cola. We recognize people want more beverage options to help them manage their weight, but they also expect delicious, refreshing taste. That’s why we continue to create and offer new low- and no-calorie options. In fact, in the U.S. alone, we offer 180 diet or zero calorie beverages, and today, nearly 33 percent of our volume in North America is from these beverages. 

We recognize people also want the option to enjoy their favorite Coca-Cola beverages in portion-controlled sizes. For these consumers, we introduced the 7.5 ounce, 90 calorie Coca-Cola Mini can. These Mini cans have been very successful and are now offered in several Coca-Cola brands.  

In addition, we are being more up-front and transparent with calorie information for our beverages, so people can make informed choices about what they drink. In 2009, we were the first major beverage company to put calorie labeling front-of-package for nearly all of our beverages. We’ve also been working with the U.S. beverage industry to place calorie information on Company-controlled vending and fountain machines across the country. We call this our Clear on Calories program.

Finally, we believe in the importance of nutrition education and programs that promote physical activity. Over the years, the “calories out” part of the energy balance equation (exercise and physical activity) has declinedi and sedentary behavior has increased. We’re sitting more and moving less, despite the findings from medical studies and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that continue to reinforce the importance of physical activity to overall health.ii, iii, iv, v

To help promote physical activity, we support more than 280 programs in over 115 countries. One effort we are really proud of is Triple Play, a program we helped develop with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. This after-school program uses education and activities to encourage young people to eat a balanced diet and become more physically active. A two-year study of more than 2,000 children, ages 9 to 14, showed that Triple Play succeeded in getting them to exercise more, eat in a more balanced way and feel better about themselves.

How important is restricting your advertising and marketing to children?

We are committed to growing our business responsibly. This is something we take very seriously. We respect the primary role of parents and caregivers to make decisions about what their family eats and drinks. This is why we have had a policy of not marketing to kids for more than 60 years. That means we do not advertise soft drinks on television programming directly targeted to children under the age of 12.

As media has evolved over the years, we’ve updated our policies to be relevant to today’s environment. In 2010, we toughened our policy to avoid buying advertising in media where children under 12 make up more than 35 percent of the audience. Our policy applies to television, radio, and print, and, where data is available, to the Internet and mobile phones.

Where do you think you’ll have the biggest impact in your efforts to fight obesity?

We believe we are helping provide real solutions to obesity, including many of the efforts mentioned earlier. Some achievements we’re especially proud of include:

•    We voluntarily removed full-calorie soft drinks from primary and secondary schools as part of our national school beverage guidelines program. These guidelines were developed as part of a partnership with President Clinton, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, the American Beverage Association, and other major U.S. soft drink companies. Since 2006, we’ve reduced beverage calories delivered to schools by 90 percent – a real and meaningful effort that continues to improve.
•    We’ve placed calories front-of-pack on nearly all our product packages globally. Along with other major beverage companies, we also recently announced that we would be putting calories on vending machines. The calorie labels will be piloted in the cities of Chicago and San Antonio and will later be rolled out across the country.
•    We have helped develop new zero-calorie natural sweeteners, including stevia leaf extract, for a number of products, including vitaminwater zero and Odwalla Smoothie Refreshers. 
•    We are very involved in supporting physical activity and nutrition programs in local communities. For example, earlier this month The Coca-Cola Foundation awarded a $3 million grant to Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, which will enable the Chicago Park District to provide affordable nutrition education and physical activity classes benefitting 125,000 people every year by 2016. This is just one example of our efforts to help get families up and moving. 

How do you measure your progress?

We measure our progress in many ways. The Coca-Cola Company issues a global Sustainability Report each year, which lists our sustainability goals and progress against each goal. When it comes to our goals to promote nutrition education and physical activity, in the 2011/2012 Sustainability Report released in November, we reported our sponsorship of more than 280 physical activity and nutrition education programs in more than 115 countries. 

Additionally, a report recently published in the American Journal of Public Healthvifound that the beverage industry successfully reduced beverage calories delivered to U.S. schools by 90 percent between 2004 and the 2010 school year. This data shows we’ve made tremendous progress through our School Beverage Guidelines program. 

How do retailers factor into your efforts?

Many of our customers share our commitment to promoting active, healthy living and we seek to partner with them whenever possible. We recognize that working together provides us tremendous opportunity to increase awareness of important health messages. For example, last year Diet Coke partnered with SUBWAY on The Heart Truth® campaign to raise awareness about women’s heart health. In this partnership, SUBWAY and Diet Coke used in-restaurant promotions and social media channels to spread awareness and educate people, particularly women, on healthy living to prevent heart disease. As a result of the long-term The Heart Truth® campaign effort, more than half (54 percent) of women recognize heart disease is their leading cause of death, up from 30 percent in 1997.vii And, since Diet Coke has been involved, awareness of The Heart Truth® and our support for it has nearly doubled. 

We collaborate with retailers and food service providers to offer information and product choices to meet people’s changing needs. Today, we offer Diet Coke in nearly every place that Coca-Cola is offered. Similarly, we partner with many different customers to offer a range of cup sizes that allow people to choose the amount and beverage that is right for them. 

We’re extraordinarily proud of the work we've done together to have a positive impact on people’s lives.

i Church T, Thomas D, Tudor-Locke C, Katzmarzyk P, Earnest C, Rodarte R, Martin C, Blair S, Bouchard C, 2011. Trends Over 5 Decades in US Occupation-Related Physical Activity and Their Associations With Obesity. PLoS ONE 6(5): e19657. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0019657.
ii S. W. Ng and B. M. Popkin. Time use and physical activity: a shift away from movement across the globe. Obesity Reviews. Published online June 14, 2012.
iii U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
iv S. N. Blair, R. E. Sallis, A. Hutber, E. Archer. Exercise therapy – the public health message. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 2012: 22: e24–e28.
Dr I-Min Lee ScD a , Eric J Shiroma MSc b, Felipe Lobelo MD c, Pekka Puska MD d, Steven N Blair PED e, Peter T Katzmarzyk PhD. Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy. The Lancet, Volume 380, Issue 9838, Pages 219 - 229, 21 July 2012. Published Online: 18 July 2012.
vi Robert F. Wescott, Brendan M. Fitzpatrick, and Elizabeth Phillips.  Industry Self-Regulation to Improve Student Health: Quantifying Changes in Beverage Shipments to Schools. American Journal of Public Health: October 2012, Vol. 102, No. 10, pp. 1928-1935.  doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2011.300610. 
vii [1] Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, the journal of the American Heart Association, February 2010.