The Foodwatch organisation has invited your company to a press conference for the presentation of their “Coca-Cola Report”. Why did you not attend?

“We are always open to having a constructive discussion. Unfortunately, our experience has been that Foodwatch is not interested in a solution-driven dialogue. During the last personal meeting with Foodwatch founder Thilo Bode he denied our company its right to exist. Since then every campaign has shown that Foodwatch has not evolved in ideological terms. However, the world has changed. The invitation to the press conference was actually a summons to appear at the pillory set up by Foodwatch.”

This is a serious accusation. Have you evolved?

“Yes. Because the topic at stake here is important. And we are a piece in a larger puzzle.  Overweight is a major problem in many countries. It has many causes, and therefore many have to contribute to the solution. This is exactly what we do.”

What does this mean in concrete terms?

“We change recipes. We carry on research and develop new beverages. And we reduce sugar. A result: We are decreasing the sugar content in our portfolio by 10 percent by 2020. For every classical soft drink, we have been offering already for years at least one variant completely without sugar.

Last but not least, we invest over-proportionally in advertising for our beverages without or with less sugar: during the last year this was in Germany almost the double per litre of beverage compared to the spending for our classical lemonades (+90%). 

Our goal is to generate by 2025 half of our sales volume with beverages completely without sugar or with less sugar.” 

Coca-Cola: Planned sugar reduction for the beverage portfolio by 2020
Coca-Cola: Planned sugar reduction for the beverage portfolio by 2020

So, you concede that the sugar in your beverages is the main cause for overweight?

“Too much sugar is not good for anybody. This applies in the same way to any other ingredient – such as fat or salt. It is quite clear that overweight is a complex phenomenon. Simple answers or pointed questions like this one are tempting but they do not solve the problem. If there was a simple, direct correlation between the consumption of sugary soft drinks and overweight, this would have to be reflected by the statistics. But according to data of the World Health Organisation (WHO) that assumption is not correct. One example: In countries like Finland, where soft drink consumption amongst children is very low, there is a high overweight rate. In the Netherlands, the contrary is the case. Truth is obviously more complex.”

UNESDA diagram based on WHO data: Soft drink consumption and BMI Index
UNESDA diagram based on WHO data: Soft drink consumption and BMI Index

In the UK the announcement of a soft drink tax reportedly resulted in the entire industry moving. What is your comment?

“The reduction of sugar in our soft drinks had already started for a long time before the new taxes were announced. Coca-Cola has changed the recipes of different beverages in the UK in altogether 34 steps since 2005. We continued this approach last year and reduced the sugar content in some our beverages below 5 g sugar per 100 ml.

The decisive question is actually: Will this be reflected by the overweight statistics? The overall sugar content in soft drinks has generally declined in the UK over a period of ten years. During the same period the number of overweight persons has increased. According to the rationale of the advocates of an excise tax, this number should, however, have had to drop.”

What are you trying to suggest?

“Whoever focuses on only one food or one ingredient, misses the goal. It is actually all about the total calorie intake of a person and his/her overall lifestyle. Consequently, such a discriminating tax does not serve its alleged purpose. You cannot tax overweight away. Whoever wants to be serious about fighting obesity, unilateral nutrition and unhealthy lifestyle in our communities, must deliver something different from a patronization of the citizens and simple slogans.  It rather needs the will for common solutions.”

Coca-Cola: Advertising spending for Zero and Light variants (2017)
Coca-Cola: Advertising spending for Zero and Light variants (2017) 

Do you not argue in the same biased manner? What is your concrete accusation of Foodwatch?

The concern – the reduction of overweight – is important and absolutely justified. We can prove that our company takes action, that we promote changes and that we are looking for a dialogue with others about further approaches to solutions for this critical issue. However, Foodwatch has so far failed to acknowledge this. As long as this does not change, any dialogue is pointless. We regret that.”

You state that a new tax is not the solution. What do you have to offer instead?

“We have a co-responsibility. And we accept it. What it takes is a national understanding on the reduction of fats, salts and sugar. A consensus for transparent information about ingredients, a wide choice and nutritional education. We want to proactively contribute to such a national reduction strategy – in a close alliance between government, the crafts sector, industry, trade and consumer protection groups.”

What progress have you made?

“Like us, many other companies from industry and trade have already started for some time developing products with new recipes, in which sugar, fat or salt are reduced. On a voluntary basis. Without imposing what people are supposed to like. They rather offer alternatives. A taste dictate does not befit a democracy.”

Give us a current example illustrating such action.

“Several weeks ago, REWE had people vote about whether a pudding should have less sugar and in the affirmative, how much less. The majority was in favour of the formula with 30 percent less sugar. This pudding will be on the shelves from May onwards.

We launched our lemonade bestseller – ViO Bio – last year with 45 percent less sugar than conventional lemonades. Furthermore, we plan to reduce the sugar content of classical Sprite by up to 50 percent. The variant without any sugar has already been available for years.”

Did you replace the removed sugar by a sweetener in your organic lemonade?

“No. With or without alternative sweetener - what is decisive is whether we meet the taste of the consumers with a new recipe. We experiment and invest a lot and learn from the feedback of the consumers. There is no doubt that many of our innovations will in future contain less or no sugar at all. However, it is not very useful for anybody if new products are applauded by campaign organisations but remain on the shelves because consumers don’t like them.

Foodwatch accuses you of hidden financing of studies. How does this fit with your commitment to transparent information?

“Several years ago, Coca-Cola USA failed to sufficiently identify its cooperation with an institute. We have learned from that. Today Coca-Cola publishes on the Internet all partnerships and research projects on health and wellbeing – retroactively since 2010. In Germany, we are, for instance, committed to the inclusion of people with disabilities in sports (Special Olympics), the integration of refugees and migrants into our society as well as the renewal of playgrounds.”

Buzzword “transparent information”. Foodwatch is also requesting the introduction of a traffic lights labelling for foods. Would you be ready to do that?

“Yes. We can see that different labelling models are introduced in several European countries. This is causing confusion for the consumers. Against this backdrop we are in favour of an equally uniform and clear labelling for the whole of Europe. In more concrete terms: we are open-minded to introduce, on a voluntary basis, a colour labelling of ingredients in Germany, too. The classical Coca-Cola shows “red” for the sugar content, even in the smallest package. Other products, like Coca-Cola Zero Sugar, are “green”. Consumers can hence take an informed decision.”

Is it not true that you also address children in your marketing, like with your YouTube channel CokeTV?

“Advertising in Social Media is today part of our reality of life. In the same way as advertising on television, on posters, in newspapers or magazines. Advertising with brand ambassadors is not new either – across all industries. Like countless other companies, Coca-Cola, too, cooperates today with influencers in the Social Media. What matters in this respect is that a brand can always be clearly identified as sender of its marketing messages. This is, for instance, undisputed in the case of CokeTV. In essence, it is actually about another question: the one concerning advertising for children, for those aged below 12 years.

Our position is clear: Coca-Cola does not place any advertising in media which address primarily children below the age of 12 years. There are, for instance, no advertising films of Coca-Cola on Kika (German kids’ channel) or in other kids’ formats. And this on a voluntary basis and already for many years. The same applies to the Internet. Compliance with this self-commitment is regularly audited by independent third parties. This was also the case last year. 2,000 advertising messages of Coca-Cola in Germany - including on the internet - were reviewed. There was not one single objection. We have consistently complied with this basic rule and will continue to do so."

Why do you not simply reduce the sugar content in your classical Coca-Cola?

“Because people who prefer the original Coke are telling us that they want it exactly like that. With our new Coca-Cola Zero Sugar we launched a variant last year which tastes almost exactly like the original. And does so still completely without sugar. It is the fastest growing variant in our Coke family. This is how we see our responsibility: innovations, new recipes with less sugar, transparent information and a broad offering for every taste.”