Recently, the Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI) petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to "investigate and take enforcement action against" the Coca-Cola Company for including the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute’s (NHLBI) “The Heart Truth” Red Dress logo on its diet Coke cans.
According to PHAI's statement: "The Public Health Advocacy Institute is asking the FDA to investigate and take enforcement action against The Coca-Cola Company’s unlawful use of heart health claims on cans of Diet Coke. In February of 2010, 2011 and 2012, The Coca-Cola Company has released Diet Coke cans labeled with a large red heart symbol, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute’s “The Heart Truth” Red Dress logo, and references to women’s heart health. Taken together, the large red heart symbol, the Red Dress logo and references to heart health imply a relationship between consuming a specific food, Diet Coke, and reduced risk for heart disease. ... The use of the heart symbol, the phrase “The Heart Truth” and the reference to a national health organization implies that Diet Coke consumption is beneficial to heart health. This claim is not supported by scientific evidence and is not otherwise allowed under FDA regulations."
"This type of misbranding is especially damaging to the public because it unequivocally links the product to a desired health outcome through multiple uses of the word “heart” and the use of a heart symbol—expressly the type of symbols, third party references and words the FDA references in its regulations and guidance on health claims for the food industry. The FDA should act immediately to investigate The Coca-Cola Company’s unlawful use of this health claim, issue the appropriate warning letter and take enforcement action as necessary."
As I have pointed out previously, the NHLBI has accepted the Coca-Cola Company as a corporate sponsor for its Heart Truth campaign. By allowing Coca-Cola to be a partner, the NHLBI has allowed Coca-Cola to boast on its web site that: "Our research with consumers has told us that women today are increasingly mindful of making choices that positively impact their lives. For them, drinking Diet Coke is an essential part of their modern pursuit of well-being."
Thus, in addition to making an implied claim that diet soda is helpful in preventing heart disease, the partnership with NHLBI is also helping the Coca-Cola Company to achieve an improved corporate image, positive brand associations with health, and free marketing for diet Coke.
The Rest of the Story
As pointed out in a MinnPost article, there is no evidence that diet soda promotes heart health and in fact, there is significant evidence that diet soda consumption is linked to adverse health effects. At least two studies have demonstrated that diet soda consumption is associated with the metabolic syndrome, a constellation of adverse medical conditions that contribute towards heart disease. There is also evidence that "the artificial sweetener in the diet soda promotes weight gain and metabolic syndrome."
According to the article: "An animal study just published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience seems to support that theory. It found a link between a no-calorie sweetener (saccharin) and weight gain."
The rest of the story is that thanks to its corporate partnership with the Coca-Cola Company, the NHLBI is helping to spread the message that diet soda helps prevent heart disease, helping Coca-Cola to market diet Coke, helping to improve the corporate image of the Coca-Cola Company, and promoting the use of Coca-Cola products. In other words, through this partnership, the NHLBI is promoting heart disease, albeit unintentionally.
Frankly, I don't think that Coca-Cola really needs this help in marketing its products from the NHLBI and American Cancer Society. The company seems to be doing pretty well on its own, selling 1.4 billion servings of its beverages each day.
What we need is a federal agency that will actually help fight obesity, heart disease, and cancer, rather than help promote and market products that contribute to these problems.