The Hagstrom Report

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Coca-Cola exec: Sugar growers need to fight off detractors

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — American sugar growers should become more active in defending their products and production methods and promoting their products, a key Coca-Cola executive said here August 7 at the American Sugar Alliance International Sweetener Symposium.

Food companies and producers need constantly to fight their “detractors,” said Rhona Applebaum, the chief scientific and regulatory officer for the Coca-Cola Company, which is based in Atlanta.

Applebaum listed the food industry’s “detractors” as Kelly Brownell of Yale University, “chemophobia,” the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Food & Water Watch. The latest “tube star” to attract the industry, she said, is Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco.

The detractors, she said, “basically go unchallenged.” Even Coca-Cola, she said, has sometimes been complacent. Food industry critics, she added, are “well connected, aligned and have good communications skills.”

Applebaum said sugar growers need to be “proactive,” meaning that they need to talk to consumers about eating sweetened products while also exercising to avoid obesity. “Address the negatives — advance the positives,” she said.

Active healthy living and education are “the foundation of the Coca-Cola company,” Applbeaum said. Healthy living is based on a “sensible balanced diet and regular physical activity,” she added.

“The more you are in a higher energy balance — taking in calories and expending them — the better you are,” she said, adding that balance is also good for business because people, including the independent elderly, “can’t be fit if they don’t have good fuel.”

Ten years ago the big food stories were about pesticides, heavy metals, genetic modification, caffeine and obesity, she said. Five years ago the stories were about BPA (an item used in containers that some advocates say causes cancer), no-calorie sweeteners and color agents in foods, she added.

Today, she said, the issues are “chemo and technophobia,” natural versus unnatural, preservatives and stabilizers.

“New issues are accelerating but old issues never go away," she said.

Food industry executives are “good at backwards vision,” figuring out “when the tipping point” on an issue that damaged the industry occurred, but not good enough at addressing problems before they crop up. Using the metaphor of a garden, she said, “The weeds can obliterate what flower you have.”

Applebaum said there are two types of scientists — the agenda-drivers and the evidence-based scientists. “Agenda drivers are distorted but in the absence of the evidence-based, we are leaving it to those who are fear mongers,” she said.

Studies in peer-based journals often say a phenomenon is “not cause and effect,” but the media takes the conclusion a step further. The sugar growers, she said, should engage more scientists, attend more conferences, support journalist education, and support efforts to get quicker responses from third-party experts.

Scientific findings have to be marketed, she said, by experts who know how to convey emotion.

Applebaum also said that scientific evidence has not been “packaged” well. Ads promoting irradiation as a way to make food safer did not work with consumers, she said.

Retailers who use certain claims “are doing it for competition” and “are creating confusion” among consumers, she said. But she also noted that Coca-Cola decided to put calorie information on the front labels of products because “When an industry does the unexpected [it] gets noticed.”

She also urged sugar growers not to fight with the makers of high-fructose corn syrup, which Coca-Cola uses in its soft drinks.

“Detractors don’t see the difference between sugar and HFCS, and they love it when we go after each other,” she said.

Applebaum also said she doesn’t like out-of-court settlements to resolve conflicts because consumers think when the parties agreed not to discuss the issue they are hiding something.

She said she had come with “a plea from Coca-Cola” that “we all have to work together and use science” but she did not offer any formal arrangement for that to happen.

Andy Briscoe, president and CEO of the Sugar Association, who moderated the panel, said his group is working to come up with a program to address the issues that Applebaum raised, particularly taking a pro-active position in addressing consumers.