Food Crime Friday: Coca-Cola’s Fairlife Milk

Recently, Coca-Cola announced the launch of a new milk product, Fairlife, which the company claims will cost twice as much as regular milk, but provides several “nutritional benefits”.

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It isn’t all that surprising to see Coca-Cola getting into the milk business.  Sales for both Coke and Diet Coke have been dropping, and consumers are increasingly becoming more health conscious. But is Fairlife really superior to regular milk, as the marketing suggests?

Let’s look at Coke’s 4 major health claims for their new product:

1. 50 percent more protein.  While this may sound appealing, most American’s already consume more than enough protein to meet their needs, especially those who consume animal products, like milk.

2. 30 percent more calcium. The average adult requires about 1,000 mg of calcium per day, and 1 cup of conventional milk contains approximately 300 mg.  Therefore, Fairlife milk is providing about 90 mg of additional calcium per cup.

3. 50 percent less sugar.  The company reduced the amount of naturally-occurring lactose in the milk.  While sugar has gained a bad reputation in recent years (as it should) dietary recommendations do not ask us to limit naturally-occurring sugars from fruit and dairy products.  The over-consumption of added sugars is what leads to poor health.  This is just a silly marketing ploy to make the milk sound more enticing.

4. Lactose Free.  While 50% of the lactose has been eliminated, that still leaves 6g of lactose per serving.  Which is why you will notice that lactase enzyme is added (similar to Lactaid milk), for those who are lactose intolerant to be able to digest it.

It should also be noted that the calorie count is exactly the same as regular milk – 80 calories per cup for skim, and 120 calories per cup for 2%.  Since protein has been increased and sugar has been decreased (both by the same amount), and both contain the same number of calories per gram, the calorie count doesn’t change.

Coca-Cola also makes a chocolate version of Fairlife, which they proudly boast as only having 12g of sugar as compared with 24g found in most conventional brands.

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Sounds great, right? Well, let’s remember that to get to this number, manufacturers reduced the amount of naturally-occurring sugar (the sugar health experts agree is not harmful) and replaced it with added sugar.  And because 12g of sugar couldn’t possibly taste as sweet as 24g, the company added two artificial sweeteners, sucralose and acesulfame potassium.  The packaging, of course, says nothing about these added sweeteners.  They are buried in the ingredients list, where many consumers will either not notice them, or not recognize them as sweeteners.

Is Fairlife worth the price, or just a hyped-up product from the marketing geniuses at Coca-Cola? I’d go with the latter.  The only real nutritional benefit is the added calcium, which at 90 mg per cup, you could easily obtain from a serving of chickpeas, acorn squash, or almonds – and you’d be gaining a lot of other nutritional benefits too.

Why a Soda Tax Matters

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Over the last several years, there have been over 30 proposed taxes on sugary beverages.  Sugary drinks (such as soda, fruit drinks, and sports drinks) are the single biggest source of added sugar in our diet today, and these drinks have very little, if any, healthy ingredients in them. Now, there is strong scientific evidence that they are also linked to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. Drinking sugary beverages does not make you feel full, which means that drinking 240 calories in a 20-ounce soda will not keep you from eating 240 fewer calories later. All those extra calories, day-after-day, begin to add up and turn into weight gain.

With all of that in mind, motives for this type of legislation are not surprising.  Hoping to match the effectiveness of taxes on tobacco, supporters believe a soda tax will discourage consumption of unhealthy drinks, offset the cost of obesity, and raise revenue for health and wellness initiatives.  Economists have determined that if the price of sugary drinks goes up 10 percent, consumption will go down by about 10-12 percent.  A tax of only a penny-per-ounce, would raise the cost of the average sugary drink by about 15-20 percent. This would be more than enough to reduce the amount that people buy, and the funds could be used on obesity prevention and health promotion programs.

Not surprisingly, the beverage industry has used their lobbying dollars to stymie these efforts, with great success.  But that hasn’t stopped legislators from continuing to make proposals.  Berkeley and San Francisco are the latest examples – both with soda taxes on the ballot for the upcoming November 4th election.  Whether you live in one of these municipalities or not, there are several reasons why you should care about the outcome of these initiatives.

1. A soda tax will work. Last year, Mexico passed a penny per ounce tax on soda and junk food, despite the large amounts of money beverage companies spent to prevent it.  Just as the companies feared, soda consumption dropped almost immediately in Mexico by several percentage points. And as advocate, Patrick Mustain, points out:

The amount of energy being poured into fighting these taxes is a pretty good indication that the industry, with all its well-funded market and consumer research, knows that if sugary drinks begin to be taxed, then consumption of these products will indeed begin to drop.

To date, the beverage industry has spent 1.6 million fighting the tax in Berkeley and a staggering 7.7 million in San Francisco.

2. It will change norms.  While beverage companies may try to convince you otherwise, a soda tax will not raise the price of all groceries.  It will raise the price of sugary drinks, which are not a grocery staple.  They are an indulgence.  Or, at least they should be.  Beverage companies have become quite good at getting people to consumer more sugary drinks (and in larger quantities) than they probably would naturally.  Sugary drinks are the default beverage accompanying fast food meals, can be found in coolers in nearly every store checkout lane,  are marketed as a size “small” even when the portion is 3-4 times the recommended serving size, and are almost always available with “free refills” at restaurants. A tax on these beverages reinforces the notion that these sugary drinks are a treat, and should be treated as such.

3. It will set a precedent. A soda tax passing anywhere in the United States, even in a more progressive area like Berkeley or San Francisco, is likely to ignite similar measures throughout the country.  Especially once data can be accumulated to prove it’s effectiveness.  California was the first state to ban smoking in restaurants and bars all the way back in 1998.  Now, it’s become so commonplace across the US, that entering an establishment that allows smoking seems uncomfortable.

4. It paves the way for other public health initiatives. Once health advocates realized that education wasn’t enough to reduce tobacco use, a multitude of polices were proposed to tackle the problem – which as we know, is what really caused smoking rates to finally drop.  Soda taxes are likely only the first of many policy initiatives that will be used to decrease consumption of sugary drinks.  Policy makers and health advocates haven’t given up on methods such as warning labels on packaging and serving size restrictions. By following tobacco’s example, maybe an effective tax could even lead to restrictions on the marketing of sugary drinks to children, or the removal of soda vending machines.  It may seem far-fetched, but I’m sure the same was thought of the restrictions put on cigarettes when they were first proposed.

Currently, rates of obesity and overweight show no signs of dropping, and more and more healthcare dollars are being used to treat diet related disease.  We know that sugary drinks are part of the problem.  Reducing consumption makes good economic and public health sense. A tax on sugary drinks can help make it possible.

Are processed, junk foods losing the consumer vote?

The well-known advice from Michael Pollan, “you can vote with your fork, and you can do it three times a day” just might be helping to turn the tide on the dominance of the junk food industry.  Though the power of Big Food in the United States has often seemed indestructible, sales are declining for many of the biggest players, including the Campbell Soup Company, Kellogg’s and McDonald’s.  Increasing consumer interest in food with simpler ingredients has led sectors like natural and organic to outpace more processed categories.

Just this week, the New York Times reported on the major sales decline for ready-to-eat breakfast cereals:

The drop-off has accelerated lately, especially among those finicky millennials who tend to graze on healthy options.

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In August, McDonald’s reported it’s weakest monthly sales results in more than a decade. In this Nasdaq article, the author makes a hard-hitting point about American’s desire to eat healthier food:

Generations ago, Americans accepted the world they were given without much question.  It is hardly surprising that they put McDonalds food in their mouths, trusting it not to hurt them – they did the same thing with cigarettes – but times do change. Today’s consumer goes out to eat with an active desire to not contribute to his or her own death.

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Coca-cola sales have also been dropping. Food Navigator reports:

Concerns about sugar and calories have caused consumers to re-evaluate the amount of soda in their diet.

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Sales of frozen meals have also seen a noticeable decline.  Even brands such as Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice, and Weight Watchers have all reported losses, despite their healthy sounding names.  Bloomberg reports:

Mothers are more concerned about the healthiness of frozen meals than any food item other than soda and sweet snacks.

Making things worse is the “long and scary” list of ingredients in frozen meals, which include preservatives like potassium sorbate, calcium propionate, sodium tripolyphosphate and sorbic acid

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Does this mean that consumers desire to eat healthy is the only reason these companies are losing sales? Definitely not. There are a multitude of issues each company is facing, but the desire for less processed, healthful foods is certainly an important factor affecting consumer decisions.

While McDonald’s sales are rapidly dropping, profits for companies like Chipotle, which focus on healthier, fresher and higher quality ingredients, are skyrocketing. And Big Food companies have been rapidly swooping up brands in the natural and organic food categories, as sales for these items have been growing rapidly over the last ten years.  This week, General Mills officials announced their acquisition of Annie’s Inc., a company devoted to organic and natural products. And upon slumping sales for the Campbell Soup company, CEO Denise Morrison, was quoted as saying, “the company will focus future acquisitions in North America on targets in the health and wellness category.”  Consumers are becoming more aware of the dangers of high-salt foods, and Campbell’s products have long been a major culprit.

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While it is impossible to predict whether or not these trends will continue, the power we have as health-conscious consumers is becoming more evident.  Michael Pollan is right. In addition to voting for sound food policies for an improved food environment, you can also vote with your fork!  Every time we spend money, the recipient of our dollars gets the message that we approve of their product and we want more of it, with the opposite also being true.

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The Trouble with Happiness

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Last month, a group of mom’s gathered at McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting demanding the company stop predatory marketing to kids.  While they don’t like to admit it, the company uses a variety of strategies to target young people.  In school, your child might receive a visit from Ronald McDonald to learn about bullying.  At home, your child might see a TV commercial about their favorite toys now available in Happy Meals.  And have you seen HappyMeal.com?

In the new documentary, Fed Up, the filmmakers show McDonald’s executive, Shelly Rosen, stating:

Ronald McDonald never sells to children — he informs and inspires through magic and fun.


Not surprisingly, this boldfaced lie has been getting roars of laughter from audiences across the country, but her statement illustrates an even bigger problem with the way McDonald’s and other junk food companies market to children.  As our country stands in the middle of an obesity crisis, isn’t teaching kids to associate unhealthy foods with happiness a bit dangerous to their health? Of course it is. But, it’s also profitable.


One of the moms standing at the doors of McDonald’s headquarters, was Leah Segedie, a health advocate and blogger, who once struggled with an eating disorder. When she told McDonald’s CEO, Don Thompson, that her childhood association of Happy Meal’s and happiness contributed to her disordered eating patterns, and subsequent weight gain, he laughed at her.

McDonald’s isn’t the only food company known for associating it’s products with happiness. This marketing strategy has also worked well for Coca-Cola.

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The soda giant claims they never target children with marketing, yet they ran this commercial during last year’s super bowl.


Not only does it convey the message that Coke equals happiness, but also that children should be rewarded with sugar.  Never mind that the little boy in the commercial would have to run for a full hour and 15 minutes before he would burn off the calories in just one 20 ounce Coke.

Junk food companies want you to think these “happiness” campaigns are just a harmless tactic for promoting products, but they may also teach kids to start associating unhealthy foods with certain moods.  When you are feeling down, for instance, it’s okay to reach for a cheeseburger to make you feel better.  When you are feeling proud of yourself for an accomplishment, go ahead and reward yourself with a sugary drink.  Just the name “Happy Meal” can easily convince a young child that burgers and fries will make them happy.

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With food companies spending nearly 2 billion per year targeting children, our nation’s kids are being bombarded with messages that encourage unhealthy habits. It’s bad enough that these messages have the power to impact children’s food preferences, but they can also influence lifelong eating behaviors, as was the case for Leah Segedie.

If Big Food was really interested in our happiness, they would stop putting profits ahead of children’s health.

Caramel Colored Cancer

Caramel — a sweet, sticky confection created by heating sugars to create a characteristic brown color and flavor.

Seems like the perfect ingredient for traditionally caramel colored cola beverages.  Except food companies have added a few extra steps to the recipe.   To make the artificial brown caramel coloring commonly found in the ingredient list of popular soda brands like Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper, sugar and heat are still essential.   However, this chemical process adds ammonia and sulfites into the mix, under high pressure and temperatures.

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Sound dangerous?  Turns out it just might be.  These chemical reactions result in the formation of  4 methylimidazole (4-MeI), which in government-conducted studies caused lung, liver, thyroid cancer or leukemia in laboratory rats.  While no such tests have been done on people, it is widely known that chemicals causing cancer in animals are considered to pose cancer threats to humans.  In fact,  the International Agency for Research on Cancer declared the chemical as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in 2011.  The risks were also high enough for the state of California, which now requires that all products sold in the state which would expose consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI in a day to carry a warning label under the state’s Proposition 65 law.

Despite these conclusions, there are still no existing federal limits on the amount of caramel color allowed in food and beverages, thus making it one of the most widely used food colorings in the country.  In addition to sodas, it can be found in some breads, sauces, crackers, processed meats, and even beer.

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So how much 4-MeI are we consuming? Consumer Reports just released a study  examining levels of 4-MeI in popular brands of soda.  Their research detected varying levels of 4-MeI in all sodas with caramel coloring listed on the ingredient list, with all containing at least 3 micrograms and several exceeding 29 micrograms per 12 ounce can.  Several products including Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, and Malta Goya contained more than 6 times the requirement for a warning label in California.  Authors of the Consumer Reports’ study urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set a maximum level of the substance when it is added to soda or other products, to require labeling when it is added, and to forbid using the word “natural” on the labels of products which contain artificial caramel colors.

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In response to the study, a spokeswoman from PepsiCo (whose products contained some of the higher levels of 4-MeI) told USA Today that the average amount of soda consumed daily by those who drink it is less than the 12-ounce can Consumer Reports used as its basis for measurement. As a result, the company believes that people are not exceeding the intake limit of 29 micrograms a day.

Even if PepsiCo is correct (the spokeswoman conveniently left out how they came up with these details on daily soda consumption), what about those consumers who drink more than the average amount? Don’t they deserve at a least a warning label?  Or couldn’t PepsiCo just reduce the amount of 4-MeI in their product altogether? After Proposition 65 was passed in California, Coke did just that, leaving their products with some of the lowest levels of the carcinogen in the Consumer Reports study.

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Though the FDA still believes there is no harm in consuming products which contain caramel coloring, the recent study has prompted the organization to take another look, and I applaud them for doing so.   Unfortunately, until the FDA takes action, the best consumers can do to avoid exposure to 4-MeI is to choose soft drinks and other foods that do not list “caramel color” or “artificial color” on their ingredient list.

Tis the Season for Marketing Coke to Kids

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What is the first sign that the holidays are around the corner? The first decorations going up in the shops and supermarkets? When the radio stations start playing holiday-themed music?

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For many of us, it’s the moment when we see that familiar fleet of twinkling Coca‑Cola trucks make their way across our television screen to bring light and joy (and plenty of sugary Coke!) to the masses.  Though the Christmas themed trucks are a fairly recent tradition, Coca-Cola has been associating their products with Santa Claus and the holiday season since the 1930’s.  Which is why it seems ridiculous that the company claims not to market their products to children.

Earlier this year, the Coca-Cola Company released a frenzy of media activity surrounding their global plan to tackle obesity.  This included a promise not to advertise to children under 12 anywhere in the world.  Coca-Cola had already claimed to have banned marketing to the under-12 demographic in the United States.

While Coke received some praise for these efforts, most health advocates weren’t buying it.  After the release of the campaign, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff spotted an ad from Coke in the June 17th edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, which stated:

For over 50 years we’ve adhered to a company policy that prohibits advertising soft drinks to children… we’ve recently extended this policy to include all forms of media, including broadcast, print, the web and beyond.

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Here is one of Coke’s latest forms of broadcast media, which by the terms of their policy, they must believe does not appeal children:

Does Coke honestly think children under 12 aren’t going to be enticed by an animated commercial about Santa Claus? Of course they don’t.  On the contrary, this is the perfect example of a commercial Coke knows WILL target children, but the company could easily make a claim that it is designed for older children and adults.  While many adults do enjoy Santa, you cannot deny that the jolly guy in the red suit and the magic of the North Pole predominantly appeals to children.

The holiday season also provides the perfect environment for pushing Coke’s family of polar bears in their advertising.  In fact, the following was found in Coke’s online store as part of their holiday gift guide:

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Don’t branded toys count as marketing? While Coke might be able to claim that this stuffed bear is made for adults, the company actually goes out of its way to RECOMMEND the toy for “little ones” age 3 and up.  Wouldn’t this fit that part about ‘beyond’ in their ban on child targeted marketing?

Even the packaging itself is being designed in a way that could appeal to children.  For the last few years, Coke has used the holiday season to sell ornament-shaped bottles of their products, once again starring cartoon versions of their famous family of polar bears.

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The food industry spends nearly 2 billion per year in the U.S. marketing to kids, advertising mostly unhealthy products.  Based on the media coverage, it might appear that the Coca-Cola company isn’t a part of this public health problem, but their actions continue to show otherwise.  If Coke wants to use Christmas to sell their products, they are entitled to that.  But, claiming that this marketing isn’t used to persuade children to associate Coke with the happiness and joy of the holiday season is shameful.

Fortified junk food under FDA scrutiny

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Does junk food fortified with vitamins and minerals mislead consumers into thinking they are making a healthier choice?

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The federal government is about to find out.

At long last, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will investigate how easily consumers are fooled into believing that fortified junk food (snack foods and carbonated drinks with vitamins added artificially) can replace real nutritious food.

Initially used to address national public health concerns, the proper use of fortification can be beneficial to consumers.  Since the addition of folic acid in grain-based foods, the rate of neural tube defects has dropped by 25% in the United States.  And the fortification of salt with iodine has drastically reduced iodine deficiency and goiter prevalence.

But, over the last few decades, food manufacturers have managed to exploit the process.

Vitamin C is added to fruit snacks to make the products appear equivalent to whole fruit.  Minimal levels of whole grains are added to crackers just to meet the FDA’s standards for labeling a product as whole grain.   And antioxidants are loaded into soda and other sweetened drinks to distract consumers from the high levels of sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and/or artificial sweeteners.  Why do food manufacturers do this? The answer is simple. To confuse and mislead health-conscious consumers so companies can sell more products.

Known as the ‘jelly bean rule’, the FDA actually has a regulation that discourages this type of behavior.  The rule states that just because a product is low in fat, cholesterol, or sodium (like a jelly bean) doesn’t mean the company can place claims on the label touting the healthfulness of the product.

The rule states:

The addition of nutrients to specific foods can be an effective way of maintaining and improving the overall nutritional quality of the food supply.

However, random fortification of foods could result in over- or under-fortification in consumer diets and create nutrient imbalances in the food supply.

It could also result in deceptive or misleading claims for certain foods.

The Food and Drug Administration does not encourage indiscriminate addition of nutrients to foods, nor does it consider it appropriate to fortify fresh produce; meat, poultry, or fish products; sugars; or snack foods such as candies and carbonated beverages.

As you can see, this rule strongly discourages companies from fortifying foods with nutrients like vitamin C, calcium, protein and fiber for the sole purpose of making health claims.

But, they do it anyway.  Take one look down the aisle of a grocery store and it is pretty obvious that the ‘jelly bean rule’ is seldom enforced.

Slowly but surely, however, consumer health advocates and the FDA are taking notice of the misuse of fortification to sell products.  Over the last few years, several companies have faced expensive class-action lawsuits due to their avoidance of the FDA’s rule.

  • In 2011, Kellogg’s settled a class-action suit after claiming that two of their cereal products, Rice Krispies and Cocoa Krispies, supported healthy immunity due to the addition of several vitamins.
  • Though a lawsuit was never filed, Hershey’s received a warning letter in 2012 from the FDA for nutritional claims about calcium and other vitamins in their chocolate syrup.
  • And this year, Coca-Cola will be facing a class-action suit for their Vitamin Water products which contain health claims about healthy joints, optimal immune function, and reduced risk for eye disease.  Never mind that the product name alone conveys a message of health despite the fact that the products contain excessive amounts of sugar and artificial sweeteners – and not much else.

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The FDA’s proposed study will use a web-based survey to collect information from 7,500 adults.  Participants will view food labels and answer questions about their perceptions of the products.  With any luck, this research will add to existing data which shows that  consumers are often misled by fortified foods with health claims.  This type of evidence could further lead to stricter policies surrounding the practice, labeling, and marketing of fortified products. But, not without a fight from those powerful food companies.  Like any other type of regulation that prevents Big Food from continuing the status quo, heavy lobbying will ensue.

If you agree with the importance of this study, you can submit comments to the FDA for the next 12 days here.  While it might take awhile before we see any changes, this is certainly a great place to start.