Coca-Cola Studies Globesity

Coca Cola building in India

In the summer of 2011, White House chef Sam Kass, wearing his other hat, that of Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives, spoke at the national Childhood Obesity Conference. In answer to a question about a California movement to ban the vending of sweetened soft drinks in hospitals, he said, “This issue is not caused by one drink, it’s about a much broader food landscape.”

That statement is not untrue, but the mild reply must have startled or at least disappointed many of the 1,800 health care providers, public health managers, educators, dietitians, and other interested parties who attended the conference. First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign was in full swing, at the same time as sporadic attempts in various cities to ban or tax soda pop. A lot of people were probably hoping to hear something more definitive from this particular individual, and it must have seemed like a betrayal that he didn’t take the opportunity to point a finger at the beverage industry.

Coca-Cola is collaborating with the Pennington Biomedical Research Center of Baton Rouge, La., to get to the bottom of the soda pop question. The International Study of Childhood Obesity (ISCOLE) aims to discover which lifestyle interventions can be used cross-culturally “for implementation around the world” to prevent childhood obesity — which sounds like a search for a one-size-fits-all formula.

Which may or may not be a good idea. If the recommendation is “Don’t jump off the roof of a building,” there’s a piece of advice that’s pretty much universal. In that situation, one size does fit all. But can the answer to international childhood obesity be so simple? (The picture on this page, by the way, was taken in Agra, India.)

The ISCOLE researchers will collect data on 10-year-olds in 12 countries, 500 kids in each country.

The physical characteristics of the children will be directly measured in order to classify their body weight and adiposity status, and physical activity and dietary patterns will be measured with the most objective techniques currently available….

The results of this study will provide a robust examination of the correlates of obesity and weight gain in children, focusing on both sides of the energy balance equation.

They’re going to look at the “physical, social and policy environments” and “behavioral settings,” but it is tempting to wonder: if it turns out that the one thing all overweight kids have in common is that they drink a lot of soda pop, will they tell us?

This is not an unreasonable question. There are many ways to frame research results for public consumption. For instance, a 2012 Canadian study found that boys between the ages of 6 and 11 who “consumed mostly soft drinks were shown to be at increased risk for overweight and obesity,” but somehow also found “no consistent association between beverage intake patterns and overweight and obesity.”

News sources such as ScienceDaily.com were then justified in printing such headlines as “Soft drink consumption not the major contributor to childhood obesity, study says” — a story that goes on to say:

Most children and youth who consume soft drinks and other sweetened beverages, such as fruit punch and lemonade, are not at any higher risk for obesity than their peers who drink healthy beverages.

The research did find links between obesity and “household income, ethnicity, and household food security.” In other words, poor kids get fat. Kids in families with precarious financial situations, who often happen to be members of minority groups, and who sometimes don’t know where their next meal is coming from, tend to put on weight. They also tend to consume a lot of sweetened drinks, but that’s just a coincidence, and an unimportant one — or so it seems from the way the results are phrased. Is it totally unrealistic to suspect a bit of slant in the reportage?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “White House chef: Sodas aren’t the problem,” OCRegister.com, 06/28/11
Source: “Briefings in Childhood Obesity,” LiebertPubMail.com, 03/13/14
Source: “International Study of Childhood Obesity, Lifestyle and the Environment,” ClinicalTrials.gov, 04/17/14
Source: “Soft drink consumption not the major contributor to childhood obesity, study says,” ScienceDaily.com, 06/14/12
Image by enjosmith

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