The Unpleasant Secrets of Coke

A paper with a dozen authors, published a few years ago, said,

Certain foods have rewarding and reinforcing properties; for example, high sugar-high fat combinations are rewarding for rodents and humans alike.

And sure, in the olden days, from a survival perspective, it was good and necessary to chow down on every energy-dense calorie-packed morsel you could find. But now we are stuck with bodies full of evolutionary anachronisms. Unlike our ancient ancestors, most people today do not cope with feast/famine cycles, nor are they up and moving for most of their waking hours.

Here we are in an obesogenic environment with a lot of obesogenic habits, and more to eat in a day than our great-grandpas had in a week. Now,

[…] formulations of processed foods have been designed to maximize palatability and reward… Such properties are not confined to simple taste (sweetness, saltiness) but encompass more complex blends of taste, flavor, smell, texture and even the sounds produced by preparation or consumption.

In the previous post, the last remark was about how potato chips so adroitly get their hooks into people. Let’s move on, to how a beverage that pairs superbly with chips is also quite addictive, and how the bosses of Big Food discuss these matters that are of the urgent individual and societal importance.

A very high-ranking officer explained a lot of things to Michael Moss for his piece in The New York Times, “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.” For readers who are not familiar with corporate-speak, “control as much market share as possible” translates to “make as much money as possible.” In an effort to do this,

Coke extended its aggressive marketing to especially poor or vulnerable areas of the U.S., like New Orleans — where people were drinking twice as much Coke as the national average — or Rome, Ga., where the per capita intake was nearly three Cokes a day. In Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta, the biggest consumers were referred to as “heavy users.”

Okay, no surprises there. In hot weather, people like cold fizzy soda. And Atlanta is the HQ of Coke. But in the next part Moss directly quoted the executive, about the two crucial elements in the financial calculations — drinks and drinkers:

“How many drinkers do I have? And how many drinks do they drink? If you lost one of those heavy users, if somebody just decided to stop drinking Coke, how many drinkers would you have to get, at low velocity, to make up for that heavy user? The answer is a lot. It’s more efficient to get my existing users to drink more.”

Let’s replay that last bit. “It’s more efficient to get my existing users to drink more.” Is that cynical, or what? In other words, addicting people is good business. A smaller number of dedicated users will bring in more revenue than a larger number of casual users, and the money guys know it.

Certainly, it is still important to advertise to attract new customers. But old customers should never be taken for granted. They can be cultivated into super-customers, who might spend more than they should, harm their own health, and step past the bounds of decency in other ways. A hooked person is not just a steady customer, but one who, over time, is likely to consume even greater quantities of the product during each fiscal year.

And the language. “My users,” he calls Coke drinkers. With the implication that he owns us.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “’Eating addiction’, rather than ‘food addiction’, better captures addictive-like eating behavior,”, November 2014
Source: “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,”, 02/20/13
Image by Kate Ter Haar/CC BY 2.0

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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