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

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.

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

  1. Frances Anderton 29 November 2013 at 9:15 pm #

    It’s my understanding that American teaspoons are slightly larger than UK teaspoons. I seem to recall that you have to allow for this when transposing USA recipies to UK ones. This might explain the discrepancy.

  2. Norah Ethel Coleman 29 November 2013 at 9:29 pm #

    The Coca Cola Corporation are masters of deceit and I know this for a fact since I worked for them some years ago. At the time they were using HFCS. The amount of sugar in their products is really
    horrifying and what’s worse, they use a chemical for people not to throw up after drinking such a
    large amount of sugar – something I am sure Mr Quincy didn’t dream of mentioning. I am glad you
    brought up the point, Dr. Briffa. Thanks again.

  3. deirdra 29 November 2013 at 10:12 pm #

    Isn’t stating the amount of sugar on the can required by law, as opposed to being “transparent” altruism on the part of Coca Cola?

  4. Frances Anderton 29 November 2013 at 10:29 pm #

    I have just got out my ancient USA measuring spoons. If you level off the top when measuring the sugar it does come out at about 4.5 grams. If you have a slightly rounded top as if you were putting sugar in coffee, it’s more like 6. So I guess it depends on whether you like your teaspoons to be measured scientifically or casually! (I need to get a life!) I have also seen a value of 6 quoted elsewhere previously. it still doesn’t excuse the rediculous amount of sugar in Coke. I never let my son drink it as it sent him hyper.

  5. Heather 29 November 2013 at 10:49 pm #

    WOW!!! 8.66 teaspoons of suggar in one drink!!! Most people have one or two spoons in a coffee or tea so why on earth should they think we need nearly nine!!! I have no sugar in coffee (and yes I know I shouldn’t drink it) – so it’s no wonder I can’t cope with drinking coke lol

  6. George Henderson 30 November 2013 at 12:18 am #

    Even if you drink a can of coca cola corp product and exercise off the calories, you have either consumed coke instead of something more suited to your exercise needs, or you’ve had to exercise when you didn’t need to. Either way you can’t compare calories in with calories out. They might need to equal one another in a closed system, but they don’t bear comparison in any other way. A can of coke has no similarity to a bike ride (which, in any case, has a cost in protein, electrolytes, and other nutrients that the coke does not supply).

  7. Alexander Cranford2 30 November 2013 at 1:43 am #

    Quote, ” Here’s an except.”

    You mean , “Here is an excerpt “?

  8. frank weir 30 November 2013 at 2:12 am #

    I’ve noticed that Soda Stream sugared drinks contain 8 grams of sugar per glass per their labels although I prefer the diet flavors or just the soda. The sugared flavors taste very sweet to me with far fewer grams of sugar so why do other commercial drink manufacturers feel the need to have four times more sugar? I honestly do not understand this. Their production costs would be much lower using far less sugar. Can anyone explain this discrepancy? Apparently sugared drinks can be palatable with far less sugar used so why are there such high levels? What determines the amount of sugar used in the manufacturing recipe?

  9. Jean 30 November 2013 at 8:06 am #

    While it is worrying that Coca Cola misrepresent the sugar content it is encouraging that they feel the need to.
    Maybe we are all waking up to the dangers of sugar as opposed to the ‘dangers ‘ of fat.

  10. Anne 30 November 2013 at 8:38 am #

    Do the big guys ever come after you in any form?
    I mean everything u say makes sense to me and questioning the accepted normals always made sense to me but that doesnt always gain friends in high places.
    I am currently suspenede from nhs for questioning care around dignity and consent.

    Best wishes
    Keep writin and sharing, appreciated

  11. Yossi 30 November 2013 at 9:22 am #

    Off topic, but why shouldn’t you drink coffee?

  12. Terry Loane 30 November 2013 at 10:54 am #

    You ask, Frank, why commercial drink manufacturers put so much sugar in their drinks, far more than is needed for them to be palatable. The answer is that they wish to promote sugar addiction. All drug dealers have a vested interest in stimulating the addiction of their clients to the substances they sell. The sugar pushers are no different – the more sugar there is in a drink the more we will crave further sugar fixes.

  13. Tracey 30 November 2013 at 12:02 pm #

    Good article and reminds me why I never drink fizzy drinks

    It’s a shame that the TV interview film clip has an advertising Cadbury’s before it though

  14. Lori Miller 30 November 2013 at 2:42 pm #

    I get 7.77 teaspoons when I divide 35g by 4.5 g/t.

  15. NM 1 December 2013 at 8:21 pm #

    Heather: “I have no sugar in coffee (and yes I know I shouldn’t drink it)”

    There’s nothing wrong with coffee for most people. Indeed, it seems to be a substantially healthy drink when not adulterated with sugar and syrups:

  16. Megan 2 December 2013 at 9:37 am #

    This isn’t really an argument about sugar, it is about what that sugar is doing to us. Coca Cola are happy to focus on the calories issue, because they can claim to be providing us with a drink which should be enjoyed as a daily treat – like a milky cup of coffee or a croissant.

    but all of this focus on the calories sidesteps the issue of how harmful sugar actually is. Coca Cola know this – to think that they are not aware of the literature is naive. this is damage limitation for them. They are busy rebranding their product as a treat – but with full awareness that it is addictive and that consumers can never have such a product as a treat only.

    They also think they are doing us a favour by offering sugar free versions – like that is a health drink….

    Paxman failed to ask the relevant questions about why they are feeding their customers something which is proven to be addictive – in fact two substances (sugar and caffeine). And why there are not labels on these foods to show us they lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes and possibly alzheimers…

  17. Hanna Cowpe 3 December 2013 at 1:08 am #

    Why are there such high levels of sugar in Coke? Because sugar makes you thirsty so you drink more Coke!!

  18. Jonathan Bagley 4 December 2013 at 6:09 pm #

    It’s bad, but Coca Cola is given a hard time compared to the smoothie manufacturers whose products often contain more sugar.

  19. PhilT 6 December 2013 at 11:49 am #

    A teaspoon is a measure of volume, and hence broadly useless for measuring solids that can pile up above its sides. While an official measuring teaspoon is 5 ml and hence about 4 grams of sugar (bulk density ~0.8 g/cc) it wouldn’t be beyond the average builder to get 5.83 grams of sugar on his spoonful.

    I just got 7.0 grams of Whitworth’s granulated onto a spoon that will only hold 4.0 ml of water.

  20. Fox 16 January 2014 at 9:12 am #

    Coca Cola also lies about the BPA risks and their statement is just unacceptable.

  21. bob 22 February 2014 at 10:35 pm #

    Tbey put salt in it and that makes you thirsty and emitic, hence the huge dose of sugar to offset the latter.

    And yes, manufacturers of all sugary drinks – including fruit juices – are just as bad.

  22. Lakis Liloglou 22 August 2014 at 7:40 am #

    Come on guys….
    I have no intention at all to defend a multi-billion size multinational enterprise, for political reasons, HOWEVER, I can’t see why all the conspiracy theory behind coke. We could discuss about labour issues and wether this industry treats fairly their suppliers and employees. But no! instead we want to blame them for us getting fat. How self-involved is this?
    It is pretty common though: we like to blame others for what we are 100% responsible. Once the information is there, nobody can claim ignorance. Would one become obese because of a coke overdose once a week in the cinema? This is lame, the least to say. Do you know a single person who is obese because of coke while having a normal diet and exercise levels otherwise?

    Let’s be serious and responsible citizens here; do not act like 13 year olds. It is OUR choice. YES, addiction to sugar and caffeine is true BUT is coke the only source of those? This is ridiculous to suggest. And believe me (as a molecular oncologist) there is no resemblance between the tobacco story and soft drinks. Lay perceptions do not help in these cases. Lat’s stick with scientific evidence.

    So, my friends, stay healthy, reduce your calorie intake and step up your exercise. If you have a couple of cans of soft drinks per week there is no trouble. Most of all, assume responsibility for your actions; let’s fight our weaknesses and honour the homo sapiens title we carry.

    PS. Once again, I would be the LAST person on earth to defend any kind of business of this size, but I can’t see logic going down to drain.

  23. Bill 22 August 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    Oh, they’re vile Lakis, and for all kinds of reasons. The problem in this context, though – and context is all – is that they would have use believe it’s all just calories, just “move more, eat less, all calories are the same”

    Unfortunately, you and your logic agree with them. Logic? I prefer science.


  1. President of Coca Cola in Europe misleads us over the sugar in its … | Industrial Scales and Weighing Systems - 30 November 2013

    […] Read more here: President of Coca Cola in Europe misleads us over the sugar in its … […]

  2. President of Coca Cola challenged over the amount of sugar in Coke - 5 December 2013

    […] More at:  President of Coca Cola in Europe misleads us over the sugar in its drinks […]

Leave a Reply