President of Coca Cola in Europe misleads us over the sugar in its drinks

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Newsnight is a news and current affairs television programme that airs on BBC2 in the UK. It’s most famous presenter is Jeremy Paxman, a man who has a reputation for asking tough questions and sometimes pinning interviewees to the floor. Last night, one of the guests on the show was James Quincy, European president of Coca Cola. Mr Paxman took him to task over the amount of sugar in Coke. Here’s an except.

A couple of Mr Quincy’s responses got my attention. One is that 35 grams of sugar (the amount in one 330 ml can) equates to 6 teaspoons of sugar. This means that 1 teaspoon of sugar should weight about 6 grams. I measured out 12 teaspoons of sugar just now and my electronic scales read 54 grams. I make that 4.5 grams of sugar per teaspoon. Look around the web (as I have done) and you will find plenty of references to there being about 4 grams of sugar in a teaspoon. Let’s be generous and go with the 4.5 g figure. This makes 35 grams equivalent to almost 8.66 teaspoons of sugar (not 6). This might be an honest mistake by Mr Quincy, but it is nonetheless wrong and misleading.

Also, in the interview, Mr Quincy tells us that the calories in this sugar equate to those found in a cappuccino or half a croissant. Bringing everything down to calories (irrespective of their form) appears to be a conscious tactic used by Coca Cola: Earlier this year the company launched a TV advert that showed people engaging in a variety of activities including dog walking and dancing. The conceit was that the activities being featured would burn the same number of calories found in a can of Coca Cola.

I actually commented on this strategy on BBC news soon after the advert’s launch. The main point I made was that the health effects of a food cannot be measured in calories alone. 100 calories of Coca Cola are not equivalent to 100 calories of blueberries or salmon. I also suggested that even a 6-year-old is likely to know this intuitively.

The Newsnight interview is another sign of the increasing focus being placed on sugar as the major dietary villain of the peace. I suspect Coca Cola feels compelled to engage in the debate and practice some damage limitation.

Mr Quincy claims Coca Cola is being transparent by declaring its sugar content in grams on the side of the can. However, Mr Quincy’s failure to accurately represent this (in terms of teaspoons) and his seeming desire to have us view all forms of calories as the same introduces considerable opacity.

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