The Coca-Cola ‘exposé’ had all the spin of a classic anti-sugar smear piece

The Times ran an ‘exposé’ of Coca-Cola funding of scientists last week which was similar to the New York Times exposé of Coke’s funding of health organisations last month. The NYT story was similar to the British Medical Journal exposé of food industry funding of scientists in February which, in turn, was similar to Channel 4’s Dispatches exposé of food industry funding of scientists last year.

There have been enough of these stories doing the rounds for us to see a pattern emerging. ‘Exposing’ food industry funding is a journalistic gold mine because it guarantees maximum attention for minimum effort. So if you’re a freelance journalist wanting to get in on the action, here are some tips.

First — and this is critical — don’t tell your readers that food industry funding of research is considered perfectly normal in the world of nutritional science. Government, industry and civil society have worked together for decades to see how food products can be improved and the government actively seeks industry contributions. Moreover, Coca-Cola is a huge global company with a large corporate responsibility budget. Most scientists who have worked in nutrition for any period of time will have seen a research grant from a food or soft drink company at some point, but you don’t need to provide this context. Funding sources and competing interests are invariably mentioned at the bottom of studies published in peer-reviewed journals, but there’s no need to mention that either. You want readers to believe that you have uncovered something that was previously a closely guarded secret.

Second, build some straw men. Research findings in nutrition tend to be fairly boring and you are unlikely to find any evidence of impropriety so make up for the lack of scientific misconduct by using innuendo and misrepresentation. Mainstream scientists understand that obesity is caused by a calorie surplus due to over-eating or under-exercising. They believe in a balanced diet and physical activity. Anti-sugar campaigners believe that it is entirely about diet, and especially carbohydrates, but you need to portray their fringe view as mainstream science while portraying mainstream science as industry spin. One way to do that is to attribute extreme views to the people you’re attacking. For instance, claim that ‘scientists who have received funding from Coca-Cola … argue that diet is an insignificant factor compared with physical activity’. Nobody really thinks that, but it makes them sound dodgy.

Third, get some quotes from Action on Sugar or their supporters. Mainstream scientists believe that a calorie is a calorie and that both diet and physical activity are important in combating obesity. Action on Sugar believe the exact opposite. They will probably compare the food industry to the tobacco industry and say something about foxes and chicken coups. This is good because it gives your readers an existing narrative they can understand. Once you’ve got a couple of quotes from anti-sugar obsessives you can write something like ‘many scientists blame increased sugar consumption for Britain’s obesity epidemic’. ‘Many’ is a handy weasel word and your readers won’t know that sugar consumption has been falling for the last 30 years. There is nothing to be gained from telling them.

Fourth, pick a policy which the government was never going to introduce in a million years and imply that it was derailed by industry. The sugar tax is a good one. Hardly any countries have a sugar or soda tax and the Conservative and Labour parties have repeatedly rejected them because they would be regressive, ineffective and unpopular. Don’t worry about that. Just point out that Jamie Oliver wants a sugar tax and the industry doesn’t. Ipso facto, the industry and its hired goons must have prevented the government from bringing one in.

Fifth, don’t look too closely at what the recipients of the funding actually say. Just report that the National Obesity Forum, for example, has received money from Coke and let readers come to their own conclusions. Under no circumstances should you mention that the National Obesity Forum is a fanatical supporter of a tax on fizzy drinks and a fierce critic of the food industry. Similarly, if you’re going to make a scientist like Susan Jebb the main target of your hit piece about sugar’s ‘web of influence’ don’t spoil the story by mentioning her heavily nanny statist views. If your readers realise that recipients of funding are independently minded people who hold a wide variety of views on policy, it would undermine your theme of corporate corruption.

Finally, timing is everything. The health select committee on childhood obesity holds its first session tomorrow so the more front-page stories like this the better.


  • lolexplosm

    This also reminded me of the recent allegations of Monsanto paying off scientists to push GMOs with particular regards to a respected expert in the field, Kevin Folta. Kevin is a public scientist who also runs outreach and education programs and his department was given $25,000 to help support these workshops and travel expenses. It was not a personal donation to Kevin nor was it a bonus to his salary. Needless to say, the protests and personal threats made by anti-GMO campaigners as a result of this “revelation” forced the university to donate the unspent funds to a local food bank.

    This is how a lot of academic funding works. It’s not as if Coca Cola are writing out cheques to pay individual scientists to read out whatever they are told. As Christopher points out, conflicts of interest and sources are usually declared and as such we can treat the statements and studies with specific criticisms in mind.

    I would be far more interested to read about journalists exposing undeclared COIs and funding sources, not publicly declared ones. However, that takes a lot more effort and goes against the first tip of this handy guide.

  • Sean L

    You’re as wrong about sugar as you are right about e-cigarettes, where you actually put a compelling argument. As to invoking “mainstream science” – your substitute for an argument – don’t make me laugh: why should I pay that any more heed than the “scientific consensus” on “man made climate change”, or for that matter the mainstream media? It’s just a means of censoring an opposing viewpoint. But in this case the anti-sugar people have truth on their side. Just like the defenders of e-cigs.

    • Chris Oakley

      Why?

      • Sean L

        Why what? Why mainstream science is wrong about sugar or why it’s wrong about global warming? Or why the mainstream media is wrong about any number of things? For the former, there’s no shortage of information available, not least online. Where sugar is concerned you can also test the evidence on yourself. The concept of a “balanced diet”, which sounds so sensible, is baloney. Cut carbs from your diet and you’ll lose weight if you happen to be fat, irrespective of exercise. Of course there were no carbs in anyone’s diet until very recently, that is in evolutionary time, the only time that’s relevant for the human being considered physiologically, because in pre-agricultural times there were no grains or refined sugars available. And that’s all the anti-sugar case amounts to in essence, that the body is ill-adapted for the consumption of what was once scarce but is now available in abundance, to the detriment of our health: we crave sweet things precisely on account of their historical scarcity. The food industry exploits this appetite at the cost of any number of diseases unknown in pre-agricultural times. As to taxes, we’re already taxed far too highly. But I’d sooner see a tax on sugar than on income or clothing, say. And if alcohol, tobacco and fossil fuel are taxed, why not sugar? Makes no sense to me that we should be taxed for a necessity like clothing rather than than the total scam of sugar water branded as “Coca-Cola” or whatever. As to why the mainstream media peddles falsehoods, one simple answer is that it trades in cheap sentiment which is often at the expense of truth. As the great American journalist HL Mencken, “far right” in modern media parlance, once put it, “No one ever lost money by under estimating public taste”.

        • Chris Oakley

          Thanks for the clarification.

          I agree on the abundance versus scarcity point but don’t agree that our bodies are not adapted to consuming carbohydrates. Nor do I agree that hunter gatherers had a carbohydrate free diet. Sugar and grains were consumed in whatever quantities our ancestors could manage to find them and the fact that grains are a good source of nutrition was one of the drivers behind the agrarian revolution, which ultimately led to civilisation and the Enlightenment. Although, when I read some of the nonsense put forward by supposed diet and nutrition experts, I sometimes wonder if the Enlightenment and subsequent scientific revolution actually happened.

          I agree that reducing carbohydrate in one’s diet will lead to weight loss provided that the calories saved are not replaced by intake from other food groups. However, the reality is that cutting consumption is the key issue and the same can be said about fats for example. Activity also plays a role and despite the assertions of irresponsible anti-sugar crusaders such as Aseem Malhotra, is important to weight control and wellbeing.

          Personally, I have no sweet tooth and do not crave sugar. I don’t buy the facile helpless consumer cynical industry argument but I do agree that industry has responded to consumer demand for sugar and that sugar could be reduced in many products.

          I note your contempt for Coca Cola. Its manufacturer offers two heavily marketed sugar free products and one reduced sugar alternative to its hugely popular original product, the sugar content /volume of which is less than that of “no added sugar natural” orange juice.

          I am not sure that H L Mencken would ever have approved of a sugar tax. I cant imagine that he would have been impressed by the quality of journalism at The Times either.

          • Sean L

            Thank you Chris. Of course I’m not impugning the modern world on account of the food industry, nor denying the pivotal role of agriculture in its, *our* development. Of course the prehistoric diet wasn’t *entirely* sugar or carb free. Only in comparison with today’s world: the market for sweet things, the sugar loaded junk food industry itself, contingent on our appetite for sweetness, is evidence enough of that. I admire Coca Cola as a great marketing achievement. Its nutritional value is another matter. Ditto orange juice. I’m in favour of lower taxes and less government all round. But I can’t think of any good reason why sugar loaded junk food shouldn’t be taxed rather than clothing or income. I’d sooner see lower taxes on alcohol and tobacco. Why should boozers and smokers be penalised rather than junk food addicts? Coca Cola is particularly addictive on account of its caffeine content. I’m wouldn’t be so sure about HL Mencken’s view, given what the food industry has become, that he wouldn’t be in favour of cutting it down to size. He was a Nietzschean individualist, a man of culture, not a laissez faire philistine economist.

  • Temporary ID

    Was the fox involved in a bloody or bloodless “coup”?

  • Temporary ID

    Do polar bears have a “balanced diet” (fish and more fish)? Why does the possession of opposable thumbs mean that humans must have a “balanced diet”?

    • Atlas

      Frankly people should be allowed to eat whatever they like as long as their contribution to the healthcare system is proportional the extent they abuse their own bodies.

      • douglas redmayne

        That is a more efficient way of changing behavior.

        • Betty Hernandez

          Here is something worth attention , an opportunity for work for those who want to use their free time to make money using their computers… I have been doing this since last two years and I am making 40 to 70 dollars per hour … In the last week I have made 12,245 for almost 18 hours sitting ….

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          < ->>w­w­w­.­c­h­a­n­g­e­y­o­u­r­d­e­s­t­i­n­y­f­o­r­b­e­t­t­e­r­.­b­l­o­g­s­p­o­t­.­c­o­m >

          DP

        • Sue Smith

          It’s called “starvation”.

      • Zarniwoop

        Whatever you say Nanny

    • whatever name

      Seals are protein and fat, low carbs, very healthy. Polar bears are biologically adapted to that diet over four million years.

      Northern Europeans have eaten high carb diets for only a few thousand years, since the Neolithic agricultural revolution reached us. We are not biologically well adapted to high carb diets. They make us fat, hungry again and eventually ill.

      Before that we had Palaeolithic, hunter-gatherer diets, low in carbs, for hundreds of thousands of years, well always really. Processed sugar is obviously very recent and we are not at all adapted to it.

      I do take some carbs but I try to be sensible with them. I do not snack on them or take them as the main part of a meal.

      • Temporary ID

        Agreed.
        Sugar apologists like to talk about “balanced diets”. Humans don’t need carbohydrate.

        • whatever name

          Once my jar of sweet and sour is finished, I will abstain from added sugar. It is just disposing the body to crave what is harmful to us. I may even chuck the jar, we will see. I have a seasoned small chicken just out of the oven, I will eat it later.

        • Malcolm Stevas

          BS. Carbohydrates are handy, tasty, and good. Most sensible people consume them without becoming obese or other malign side-effects. Be sensible.

          • Carbs are essential to healthy functioning, agreed. The question is WHAT KIND of carbs. Whole foods, fine and dandy. Processed packaged highly refined foods, not so much. And certainly not in large quantities.

          • Malcolm Stevas

            Entirely up to individuals to consume what they want.

          • Yes, you seem to miss the point. The point is that one carb is not equally as useful to the body as another.

          • Malcolm Stevas

            No, the point is that people can and should consume whatever they want without being lectured or prodded by government and/or assorted busybodies. Like most people I do not bother consulting government guidelines about carbohydrates, alcohol or anything else: I use my knowledge and common sense. I am indifferent to anyone else’s possibly agenda-driven notions of what foodstuff might be “useful” to me.

          • Quite right. I’m coming at this from an entirely different angle. I’m interested in learning the facts. I bother to read books on nutrition, fitness, and health (lots and lots of books). But most people don’t. They hear that ‘carbs are bad for you’ (now — in a complete and baffling reversal of what they used to hear, about fats being bad), and they’re confused. That’s because not all carbs are the same and some are definitely more troublesome in large quantities than others. If you’re not interested, fine. But the information is out there and I wish that more people had it. It would improve their lives.

          • whatever name

            Right, so you come in the health section just to tell us that you aint having no government or no one else tell you nothing and that you will do whatever the hell you like. Riiight, OK.

          • Malcolm Stevas

            Evening classes, English.

          • Temporary ID

            Humans may *want* carbs (a fact that junk-food companies have certainly realised) but they do not *need* carbs. You eat what you want and I’ll eat what I want.

          • Malcolm Stevas

            Humans have, actually, been “wanting carbs” since rather a long time before “junk food” companies were invented.

          • Temporary ID

            A straw man.

      • Malcolm Stevas

        Really? I eat lots of carbohydrates, I’m far from fat, not hungry all the time, and not ill. You do actually sound a bit ideological.

        • whatever name

          Shut up ya fat lazy lying cunt!

          • Malcolm Stevas

            Are you on the right site? Perhaps The Sun or The Beano would suit you better. And you missed the point (unsurprisingly…): I’m not fat, but slender, and remarkably handsome. And I don’t splash gutter language around.

          • whatever name

            It was a late night jokey post, I wouldn’t get too serious about it. It made me laugh anyway.

          • Malcolm Stevas

            Laughing at your own bad jokes and yob language? Stay off the Special Brew.

          • whatever name

            sherry, not much point in jokes that don’t make one laugh?

        • whatever name

          Hi, it seems that high carbs do make us fat and hungry again. Getting fat makes us ill.

          Evidently high carbs produce an insulin response that stores glucose as body fat. The drop in glucose makes us hungry again. I don’t think that the science is controversial.

          https://www.diabeteshealth.com/why-eating-too-many-carbs-makes-you-fat/

      • only a few thousand years, since the Neolithic agricultural revolution reached us. We are not biologically well adapted to high carb

        It’s not a few thousand, it’s about 10,000 or more. And yes, humans do evolve in that timespan. Humans belonging to cultures in which starches are eaten as staples have a particular enzyme that helps them digest it. Why do we have this enzyme unless carb consumption was useful for our flourishing? —

        Any one person’s DNA is about 99-99.5% identical to any other person’s DNA….* [O]n average, people from cultures that historically have high starch diets (such as Japanese and European Americans) have more copies of the gene salivary amylase than people from cultures that historically eat low starch diets (such as Mbuti and Yakut). Amylase is involved in digesting carbohydrates. More copies of the salivary amylase gene correlates with more enzymatic activity [in the metabolism of carbohydrates].

    • Tamerlane

      You can’t open a can of Coke without opposable thumbs. I know, I’ve tried it. Woof Woof.

      • Sue Smith

        Well, dog-gone it!!

    • Sue Smith

      Great questions, in the most formidable language possible!!

  • davidofkent

    Under-exercising is rarely the problem unless a person lies in bed all day every day. Doing 30 minutes of good exercise burns barely enough calories to use up that small bar of chocolate that you say you eat, never mind the huge one that actually passes down your throat.

    • Hermine Funkington-Rumpelstilz

      People lying to themselves get fat. It’s always the same rather simple story.

      • whatever name

        Yea ya fat self-righteous cunt. F off!

        Its not an argument ya fat self-righteous ct!

    • magi83

      If you are largely sedentary you need more than 30 minutes of exercise a day (on average). I run on average 4-5 hours a week but that includes a 90 minute to 2 hour run on a Sunday morning.

      I hear lots of people protest that they ‘don’t have the time’ but if you don’t prioritise your health what are your priorities?

      • You’re probably wasting your time, dear.

        • magi83

          Not really – I actually enjoy running!

          • That’s fine then. I’m an anti-runner, myself. I like what might be called bodybuilding, and dance.

  • douglas redmayne

    So what companies like coca cola deserve to be smeared. Trust the Spectator to give space to a contraries turd who defends them. I hope he gets diabetes and that his endocrine system gets destroyed.

    • John M

      You sound so dumb that it surprises me you managed to even read the article. Or did you just skip the long words?

  • whatever name

    Personally I always drink supermarket diet colas, those without caffeine from the afternoon. They have a complex taste and they are 50p a bottle for as opposed to £2 for Coke. I had a small bottle of normal Coke when I was out driving and frankly it was totally disgusting. It tasted of nothing but thick sugar.

    Personally I really don’t get why people buy sugary colas. A bottle of diet cola has zero calories. I drink it all day and I really couldn’t afford that quantity of sugar and calories. But then I never take sugar with tea or coffee. I do however sometimes use sweet and sour sauce as a dip, so I am not totally sugar free.

    I don’t think that I am ideological about it, I just have no desire to drink packets of sugar or to get fat. And I would never chuck my money on brand colas.

    I also keep down carbs, like potatoes, rice, bread, couscous, noodles, they just make me fat and hungry again. I would rather snack on proteins, like fish, scampi, sausages, bacon, scrambled eggs, stewed beef, a seasoned chicken or whatever. Of course I take regular portions of vegetables, either in meals or as a snack, spinach, green beans, with some garlic or spice and a drop of olive oil, whatever. To me it is just common sense. Cooking/ eating can be an art. I like to experiment with ingredients.

    Another issue is the use of selective added umami flavourings in fast food joints, that are selected to cause an addictive response in the brain. I cooked a portion of spring rolls the other night, served with black bean and sweet and sour dips, and the addiction was extreme. I caved in and cooked another portion – so I wont be buying those again.

    • Malcolm Stevas

      Goodness, I never analyse my eating to that extent. I just eat whatever I like, and for the most part sensibly, without obsessing over it.

      • whatever name

        (sorry, actually posed to Malcom.)

        Yea ya fat self-righteous cunt. F off!

        Its not an argument ya fat self-righteous ct!

  • Sue Smith

    It’s the nanny-state operatives which are behind all this. Based on the assumption that the masses are incapable (through lack of intelligence) of making choices for themselves, “nanny” has to do it for them. Glad I sold my Coke shares!!

  • Malcolm Stevas

    “Anti-sugar campaigners believe that it is entirely about diet, and especially carbohydrates.”
    Or at least it’s a position they adopt as part of some agenda. Sadly there are lots of people with a seemingly unstoppable urge to intervene, control, bully and obsess – whether it’s feminism, abortion, animal “rights”, wind power, Coca Cola…
    The sugar nonsense and other dietary fascism is just nasty BS pushed by nasty control freaks with an authoritarian agenda. Fortunately, sugared drinks and other carbohydrates weren’t invented when I was growing up, which is why I (and very many of my generation) remain slender, fit, and (in a certain light) still remarkably good looking…

  • Gilbert White

    We have got muslims addicted to the stuff and it might not be halal?

  • Vinny Gracchus

    The anti-sugar faction of the lifestyle control cult had plenty of practice honing its propaganda with tobacco control. (After all they are the same shills for Big Pharma.)