Monkey Business in the War on Obesity?


As Coke launches “Coke Life” in its shiny green packaging (for “green” read the implied “natural”, “healthy” – aka “you don’t have to avoid Coke to reduce your waistline” – messaging) and the Food Safety Authority has declared the need to put calorie-counts on menus, recent research from Duke University informs us that apes, much like their less-hirsute human relatives, are susceptible to so-called “spin” (my erudite colleagues in PR would prefer we call this “message management” but, as the Stones reliably remind us; you don’t always get what you want).

Through the positive or negative presentation of food options (fruit versus nuts) and the management of rewards, apes consistently chose the healthier option when it was positively framed. Perhaps more than offering insight into the dietary preferences of apes, the research has shown what psychologists have long known and what the rest of us often use to our own advantage – how something is “packaged” often determines our decision-making and likelihood of choosing it (if you’ve ever put on your fail-safe “pulling” outfit for a night out, you’re already ahead of the curve on the psychology of framing – but, back to the apes).

In the case of “Green Coke” we’re told the use of stevia leaf (a sweetener and sugar substitute is a healthier option. The official nutritional breakdown on “Red” versus “Green” Coke shows this to be factually correct – there are indeed fewer calories in the new green option (89 as against the 139 of original “red” Coke). Stevia also benefits from being a more palatable option than aspartame – so often abused and misrepresented by quacks and pseudoscientists as being linked to cancer.

If there are fewer calories it’s all good – right? Not so fast…

What’s hiding behind the metaphorical fig-leaf of “natural stevia” is that stevia is up to 150 times sweeter than sugar, and it’s on this less-discussed issue of “sweetness” that attention should instead focus.

Sweetness (that is, the gustatory, psychological and sensory feeling of something being sweet as opposed to its actual nutritional value) has repeatedly been linked to our growing waistlines. Both cross-cultural and longitudinal research (see for example Sugar and Modernity in Latin America) have reliably shown that as our taste preferences have evolved towards higher sweetness, our waistlines have expanded. It is the sense of sweetness (a factor of our early relationships with food and “mouthfeel” or taste-sensation) which is linked to over-eating and the obesity that arises from a preference for dense, high-fat foods.

Similarly with Ireland’s new menu calorie counting idea, the Minister is undoubtedly right when we says “some salads contain more calories than a burger meal” but the two would likely also have radically different amounts of fibre, fat, protein, carbohydrate, salt, sugar…

Calorie counts are good to know – but the full picture is even more relevant – not all calories are created equal. Calories derived from foods that leave you feeling “fuller” (usually the green stuff you have to force kids to eat) reduce overall calorie intake by reducing appetite.

Stevia is natural – but then so is arsenic – and this simple fact alone shouldn’t be sufficient to dupe us into thinking we’re making a healthy choice even if it appears in a friendly green can in a store near you.

Perhaps the more effective weapon in the war on obesity would be an informed, critical, health-literate consumer, equipped to clearly understand food decisions and their impact. We absolutely need to invest more than the “eat less, move more” approach but surely we can do better than apes in seeing through clever packaging and half the facts?

About frimframworld

Total coffee fan, dedicated foodie & news hound. Strategic PR & political comms as a day job. All comments my own - blogging in a personal capacity only.

View all posts by frimframworld


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