I’m from Cleveland, which naturally means that through the relatively scarce thick and the seemingly omnipresent thin, I’m a Cleveland sports fan. No major sports team in the city has won a championship in nearly half a century – you can only imagine my current excitement to see the Cavaliers perched atop the NBA standings, a bona-fide title contender this year. So when LeBron James says, “Jump,” I say, “How high?” When LeBron James says, “Drink Vitaminwater” – as he does during nearly every commercial break – I say, “How many bottles?”
But truth be told, I probably should not be drinking this stuff, even though King James tells me to. Vitamins! Water! Are there any two substances more essential for life on this planet?
But upon closer inspection, Vitaminwater is so much more than just vitamins and water – just not in a good way. Each bottle contains 125 calories and a whopping 33 grams of sugar. And we not talking natural fruit sugar, despite what names like “Endurance Peach Mango,” “Focus Kiwi Strawberry,” and “XXX Blueberry Pomegranate Acai” might lead you to believe. No, we’re talking crystalline fructose, produced from cornstarch and crystallized from fructose-enriched corn syrups.
The real issue with Vitaminwater is not that it is filled with sugar or that it provides little health benefit of any kind. In fact, Vitaminwater’s newly introduced low calorie beverages attempt to mitigate these issues. The real problem with Vitaminwater is that it is marketed as “enhanced” water – it tricks consumers into believing that it provides all the hydrating, noncaloric benefits of water, along with vitamins and minerals necessary for a healthy and active lifestyle.
Coca-cola’s marketing scheme – which goes so far as to claim Vitaminwater promotes healthy joints, reduces the risk of chronic disease, and supports immune function – is but one subtle example of the food industry pushing products of questionable nutritional value on our nation’s youth.
Over the past three decades, rates of childhood obesity have doubled among children aged 6 to 11 and more than tripled among teenagers in this country. Type 2 diabetes, formerly known as adult-onset diabetes, is now routinely diagnosed in children and prevalence rates have soared in recent years. The United States spends a staggering $150 billion annually treating largely preventable, obesity-related diseases.
But even as the World Health Organization and Institutes of Medicine have independently concluded that there is strong evidence of a link between junk food advertising and childhood obesity, relatively little effort has been devoted to restricting such advertisements geared to children. School-age children are constantly bombarded with messages that promote calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods. McDonald’s spends half a billion dollars on media advertising annually, while Kellogg spends over $20 million dollars a year on promoting Cheez-It crackers alone.
Each junk food package currently a spirited battle between the gaudy images and clever catch phrases on three sides of the box and the humble nutrition label on the back – with the unfortunate result being that we are losing the war on obesity. As Michelle Obama launches the White House’s “Let’s Move” campaign to combat childhood obesity, curtailing the consistent flow of messages that promote unhealthy products to children may provide a useful and cost-effective start.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently brought attention to deceptive marketing tactics by filing a class action lawsuit against Coca-Cola for its misleading and unsubstantiated claims regarding Vitaminwater. We ought to recognize the importance of this lawsuit and understand that we cannot afford to squander this valuable opportunity: the verdict could have far-reaching consequences for the extent to which we hold corporations accountable for deceptive marketing strategies.
I recognize the need to exercise caution when restricting freedom of speech and expression. Thus, self-regulation and voluntary industry compliance with public health recommendations may provide a first step for addressing junk food marketing. But I also appreciate the need to take action in the face of an unrelenting obesity epidemic that threatens the health of our children and the vitality of our health care system. If voluntary restraint is ineffective, statutory regulations may be needed. One way or another we must send a clear message: no longer will we be duped, swindled, and furtively fattened. We want the truth.
And maybe, just maybe, Ohioans can convince our beloved LeBron to start pushing tap water and a well-balanced diet instead of sugar water sprinkled with vitamins.
Dhruv Khullar is a student at the Yale School of Medicine and a 2009 graduate of Yale College.