Anytime health groups or politicians go after “junk food,” and crusade against sugar, one of the first brands evoked is almost always Coca-Cola. The nation’s premier soft drink brand often gets a front row seat at any program going after the “evils” of sugary drinks and the health impacts on American culture. From childhood obesity to adult onset diabetes, Coke is always one of the usual suspects.
For good reason, really. Coke and its assorted line of tasty beverages generally have a lot of sugar in them. Even the so-called healthier drinks or “sports drinks” have high amounts of sugar. So, it might surprise some people that Coke has come out very proudly and publicly in support of the World Health Organization’s guidelines for limited added sugar. Coke going after sweetener? Say it ain’t so … and, yet, it is.
Part of this is changing consumer tastes. Part of it is the new sheriff in town at Coke. Incoming CEO James Quincey says the company is much bigger than the “cola” that gave the business its world-renowned name. Quincey is looking to transform Coke into a “total beverage company,” and he wants to begin aggressively marketing this vision right now.
That’s not to say they’re doing away with Coke, or that it will be any less sugary sweet. For most people, a single 20-ounce Coke contains the entire daily recommended sugar intake, according to WHO guidelines, which, once again, Coke says they’re cool with. To help combat that image of big sugar soda, Coke has been aggressively promoting smaller containers of its signature beverage. They are calling this assisted portion control … and these smaller cans do seem to be selling well. Though there’s no data, really, on whether people are stopping at just one.
Another step in Coke’s march toward a smaller global sugar footprint is increased placement and marketing of its lower sugar selections, such as Coke Zero. No word yet on whether or not the company will cut the sugar in its Fanta lines, or in the popular sports drinks branded as Powerade.
This is one sticking point for everyone in this conversation. Coke promotes sports drinks as a “healthier” option for kids and athletes, and most coaches and parents agree … then they look at the sugar content in a single bottle of Powerade, which, according to various media sources, is about 34 grams per serving. That’s 2 grams less than Gatorade, but only 8 grams less than Fanta. How many parents look at Grape Fanta and Blast Powerade in the cooler case and think: “nearly the same.” Not too many.
But do those numbers really tell a fair and accurate story? While widely reported and available online, those are NOT the numbers reported on the label by Coca-Cola. According to Coke, most Powerade flavors only have 21 grams of sugar per serving. If that’s an accurate number, a 32-ounce bottle of Powerade still has about 60 grams of sugar. Which, as Coke contends, might well be fine after a particularly strenuous workout, but probably isn’t right as a soda alternative for kids.
So, expect the fight about sugar in soft drinks – whether sodas or sports drinks – to continue, regardless of how much Coke Zero the company sells.
Daniel Palmier is a leading Boston CEO, Real Estate Investment Manager, and Founder of UC Funds.