In light of Coca-Cola’s much-discussed attempt to place itself at the vanguard in the fight against obesity—see video above—it’s worth taking look at its line of “enhanced waters,” known as Glacéau vitaminwater. You could be forgiven for thinking the product is a life-giving nectar. The made-up word Glacéau evokes the purity of glaciers. Vitamins are essential nutrients. And water is an unimpeachable ingredient.
Coca-Cola’s marketing encourages the healthy image. According vitaminwater’s website, the Power -C flavor of vitaminwater delivers “zinc and vitamin C to power your immune system”; while the XXX offers “antioxidant vitamins to help fight free radicals and help support your body.” And so on.
But not everyone’s convinced that vitaminwater does a body good. Back in 2009, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued Coca-Cola for making “deceptive and unsubstantiated” health claims about the products. In 2010, a US federal district court judge rejected Coca-Cola’s motion to dismiss the suit (document here), noting that Coke’s lawyers had made a remarkable argument: “At oral argument defendants suggested that no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitaminwater was a healthy beverage.”
In other words, no one actually believes our flashy marketing—it’s obviously nonsense. The vitaminwater suit still hasn’t been resolved, a CSPI spokesperson informed me. And hilarity over Coca-Cola’s cynical defense strategy is ongoing, too. Stephen Colbert spoofed it just this week:
|The Colbert Report||Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Vitaminwater Advertising Lawsuit|
And I think Coke’s obesity campaign should be read in the same light: No consumer should be misled into thinking that the sugary-beverage giant (its heavily marketed array of “diet” products nothwithstanding) has been transformed into an obesity-fighting machine. Or, as New York University dietician Marion Nestle put it on her Food Politcs blog, “Coca-Cola fights obesity? Oh, please.”
Just for fun, I checked out the ingredients of “orange-orange”-flavored vitaminwater, which are remarkably similar to the other 11 flavors (also listed in that link). Here they are :
Reverse osmosis water, crystalline fructose, cane sugar, less than 0.5% of: citric acid, magnesiumlactate and calcium lactate and potassium phosphate (electrolyte sources), natural flavors, vitamin C (ascorbic acid), gum acacia, vitamin B3 (niacinamide), vitamin E (alpha-tocopheryl acetate), vitamin B5 (calcium pantothenate), glycerol ester of rosin, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), vitamin B12, beta-carotene, modified food starch, sorbitol.
So, it contains less than 0.5 percent of a whole list of stuff (none of which has anything to do with this particular flavor’s namesake fruit, the orange), and thus at least 99.5 percent water, crystalline fructose, and sugar. Crystalline fructose, it turns out, is an even more processed version of high-fructose corn syrup—it provides a pure jolt of fructose. “Cane sugar” is about half fructose and half glucose. There’s a growing body of literature, described ably by Gary Taubes in his 2011 New York Times Magazine piece “Is Sugar Toxic,” suggesting that refined sweeteners, and in particular their fructose component, are driving a range of health problems including diabetes. Recently, UCLA researchers have found evidence that “a diet steadily high in fructose slows the brain, hampering memory and learning.” And then there’s the emerging suspicion that diets high in refined sweeteners can trigger Alzheimer’s disease. In a 2012 Mother Jones piece, Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens showed how the sugar industry has worked hard over the decades to suppress and downplay such research.
So what Coke is passing off as “enhanced water” is mostly just sugar water; or as CSPI has put it, “vitamins + water + sugar + hype = soda – bubbles.” Granted, there’s less sugar in vitaminwater (19 grams per 12 oz.) than in, say, Coca-Cola classic (39 grams per 12 oz.). But it’s still pretty sugary.
What about the other 0.5 percent of vitaminwater—the vitamin part? It includes electrolytes—the stuff found in sports drinks. It turns out that electrolyte-laden drinks are mostly hype. As for all those vitamins, there’s little or no evidence that vitamin supplements do much to improve health. “We have an enormous body of data telling us that plant-rich diets are very healthy,” Josephine Briggs, head of the National Institute of of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine told The Wall Street Journal in 2011. “As soon as we take these various antioxidants [and other nutrients] out and put them in a pill, we’re not consistently getting a benefit.”
In other words, you’re much better off getting your vitamins from whole foods than from sugary drinks.
What, then, is vitaminwater good for? Well, it does seem to provide good profit margins for its maker. At Staples, you can pick up an assorted 12-pack of assorted 20-oz. vitaminwaters for $19.99. That’s about 8 cents per ounce. Another form of Coca-Cola-produced sugar water, Coca-Cola Classic, fetches $11.99 for a 24-pack of 12-oz. cans at Staples. That’s about 4 cents per oz. So Coke gets about twice as much for its vitaminwater as it does for its flagship product.
Say what you want about Coke’s marketing of vitaminwater and its anti-obesity rhetoric, but its business sense is impeccable.