Seeing Red: Diet Coke and Heart Disease

By Christine Cupaiuolo — January 9, 2008

“Our research with consumers has told us that women today are increasingly mindful of making choices that positively impact their lives.” — Katie Bayne, CMO of Coca-Cola North America, Atlanta

What’s a company to do when its product is not recommended as part of a healthy lifestyle? Simple: Put on a little red dress.

Diet Coke and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute are teaming up to promote “The Heart Truth” campaign, which aims to raise awareness of women’s risk of heart disease. In 2002, The Heart Truth campaign introduced a red dress as a national symbol for women’s heart disease. If you haven’t seen it yet, you will soon.

Starting Jan. 22, the red dress will appear on Diet Coke, Caffeine-Free Diet Coke and Diet Coke Plus products — 2.5 billion of them, AdWeek reported Monday. Look for print and online ads to begin in February, during American Heart Month.

And what says heart disease better than Fashion Week? According to AdWeek:

Diet Coke will be leveraging events as well, sponsoring the Heart Truth’s Red Dress Collection fashion show during Fashion Week 2008. From mid-February through April, Diet Coke will tour 10 cities with the Heart Truth Road Show. The exhibit will show six red dresses previously worn by celebrities and offer free health screenings.

How very chic.

What’s not so chic — and what Coca-Cola would prefer doesn’t get mentioned — is that consumption of both regular and diet soda is linked to a metabolic condition that can lead to heart disease. A study published last year in the American Heart Association journal Circulation found that people who drink one or more soft drinks per day have a more than 50 percent higher risk of developing the metabolic syndrome that has been linked to heart disease, stroke and diabetes than people who drink less than one soda per day.

“The point is that the risk is high no matter how many soft drinks one consumes and no matter what type of soft drink one consumes,” said Dr. Ramachandran S. Vasan, associate professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and one of the study authors. “This adds to what we already know about how soft drinks may be associated with weight gain and metabolic risk.”

The American Beverage Association took issue with the study (well, duh), and the American Heart Association responded with a statement: “It is important to note that the study does not show that soft drinks cause risk factors for heart disease. It does show that the people studied who drank soft drinks were more likely to develop risk factors for heart disease.”

Indeed, a number of nutrition experts quoted in this ABC News story doubt that diet soda, which doesn’t contain calories, would by itself increase risk factors. “There is no reason to think that soda — as much as I do not think it should be a part of a healthy diet — would cause heart disease,” said Dr. Darwin Deen, associate professor of clinical epidemiology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “But it comes as no surprise that people who do drink soda do other heart-harming things, thus creating an association between soda drinking and [heart disease].”

Deen added that the sweetness of diet soda is on par with regular soda, and it could be acting as a trigger of sorts. “What this means is that soda drinkers are less likely to enjoy the taste of an apple or a fresh tomato and more likely to need stronger flavors (like salt) to make their food taste good. This may be part of the explanation.”

There are, of course, plenty of other reasons to avoid drinking soda; at the very least, soda displaces more nutritious drinks.

The Heart Truth campaign lists almost 30 corporate partners on its website. (So far, Coca-Cola is not mentioned.) At some point you have to wonder what the guidelines are for partnership — and whether association with an unhealthy beverage will alter the campaign’s taste.


2 responses to “Seeing Red: Diet Coke and Heart Disease”

  1. Coca Cola as a health care partner? Well at least it’s not a tobacco company but soft drinks are inimical to healthy living.Furthermore, I think that it is highly unethical for the Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to partner with Coca Cola.By doing so they are implying that it okay to drink soft drinks and that Coca Cola is acting in the public interest rather than to push its products.

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