Myths vs. facts in the diet soda health debate

A new study that links the consumption of diet soda to obesity represents the latest PR challenge for the beverage industry's low-calorie offerings.

A new study that links the consumption of diet soda to obesity represents the latest PR challenge for the beverage industry's low-calorie offerings.

Both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo offer low and no-calorie soft drink products. Diana Garcia Ciarlante, who works in the corporate communications department for Coca-Cola, said, “Today in the US, Coca-Cola has some 150 no- and low-calorie beverage options,” including Coke Zero, which it launched in 2005.

“Since its launch the brand has been reminding consumers that you can have both (taste and low calories) without having to sacrifice one for the other,” Ciarlante added.

But the low-calorie options have recently been generating negative headlines in the wake of a number of study abstracts presented at medical conferences this year. The most recent, presented at the American Diabetes Association meeting, found the waistlines of diet soda drinkers grew 70% more than those of non-drinkers.

In February, diet soft drinks also came under attack from a separate study, this one presented at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference in LA. That report showed diet soda drinkers were at a much higher risk of heart attack and stroke compared to those who avoided diet drinks altogether.

Coca-Cola and PepsiCo referred questions about scientific studies to the American Beverage Association (ABA), which has been defending the industry through its website, blog, social media channels, and strategic news releases.

“We respond to every challenge against our industry, products, and ingredients, and we think it is also important to engage with the scientific community,” said Tracey Halliday, VP of communications for the ABA. “We think it is important to push back with the facts and sound science that supports our positions.”

In response to the most recent study linking soft drinks to obesity, the ABA issued an official statement and blog post. Both pointed out that numerous peer-reviewed, published studies have shown that diet sodas are an effective tool for weight loss.

Halliday said they also explain that most negative research findings are merely abstracts, meaning they have not been published or peer-reviewed.

“That is the scientific gold standard,” she explained. “Unfortunately, that's why you see some headlines that tend to be sensational. You see a lot of reporting based on press releases, with a focus on reporting the headline and not the actual conclusions of the study.”

ABA also sometimes quotes or links to third-party comments. In defending against the study linking diet soft drinks to heart attacks and strokes, a blog post quoted several medical experts who criticized the science behind the findings, including ABC News medical correspondent Dr. Richard Besser.

“We used some of the information that we were seeing happening in the news environment to blog and push out through social media,” Halliday says. “It helps to have those voices, so we could bring some balance to the conversation.”

Halliday confirmed that the ABA handles its PR in-house.

Still, David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Center for Childhood Obesity Prevention, says this is an issue that likely won't go away soon. He told PRWeek there is a real possibility that artificial sweeteners – a key ingredient in low-calorie soft drinks – may not help people lose weight, a belief shared by others in the medical community.

“The switch to artificial-sweetened beverages is one of the largest uncontrolled public health experiments ever done,” Ludwig said. “We simply lack any long-term data on its effectiveness as an alternative to sugar in reducing body weight, even though the marketing implies weight loss because many drinks are marketed with the term ‘diet.'”

“I think there is an ethical obligation on the part of the industry to avoid misleading or deceptive marketing practices,” Ludwig added.

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