The Dark Side of Coca-Cola's Healthy Brands

In the last few years, sales of natural and organic foods have become big business. Annual revenues have nearly tripled since 2001, and they now exceed $91 billion. Healthy food isn't just for hippies any more, and corporate America wants in on the action.
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On November 22, Coca-Cola completed its acquisition of Zico Coconut Water. The company now owns a string of beverage brands marketed to people who like natural foods, including not just Zico but also Honest Tea, Odwalla, Simply Orange, and Vitamin Water.

In the last few years, sales of natural and organic foods have become big business. Annual revenues have nearly tripled since 2001, and they now exceed $91 billion. Healthy food isn't just for hippies any more, and corporate America wants in on the action.

While sales of Coca-Cola's soft drinks have been slumping, company profits were up in the third quarter of 2013, thanks to strong and growing sales from Coca-Cola's non-soda and healthier beverage offerings.

But not everything is cheery in organic-land. Some natural food lovers are uncomfortable with the fact that most of their treasured brands have been bought by corporate behemoths. Clorox bought Burt's Bees. General Mills claimed Cascadian Farms and Muir Glenn. Even Kellogg's got into the natural foods buy-up bonanza by purchasing popular brands like Kashi and Gardenburger. In fact, 80 percent of organic brands are now reportedly owned by mega corporations.

This means that natural foods consumers might be unknowingly contributing to the profits of, and supporting the policies and practices of, parent companies like Coca-Cola with whom they have profound disagreement.

For example, the vast majority of natural foods consumers want Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to be labeled. GMO labeling is already mandatory in 64 nations including the entire European Union, and recent polls find it supported by 93 percent of the American public. But profits from the sale of Coca-Cola's healthier brands have been used by Coca-Cola to fight labeling efforts. It stands to reason that the company doesn't want the public to know that its soda pop is sweetened with high fructose corn syrup made from genetically engineered corn.

Monsanto and Coca-Cola might like to dismiss GMO labeling advocates as a bunch of uninformed Luddites who are afraid of science and don't care about the world's hungry. But many scientists and informed humanitarians have real and significant concerns about GMOs.

In the 20 years since genetically modified crops first came on the market, studies have found that they have led to higher pesticide use, and no meaningful improvement in flavor, nutrition, yield or water requirements. And many independent scientists are deeply concerned that they have not been adequately tested and may even present health risks, and that their use has led not only to vastly increased use of pesticides but to a host of other environmental problems.

But companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Kellogg have joined forces with Monsanto to bankroll efforts aimed at keeping Americans from knowing which foods contain GMOs. And they've used money from sales of their natural brands to help finance the effort.

In November, Washington State voters narrowly rejected ballot initiative 522, which would have mandated the labeling of GMOs. The "no on 522" campaign broke state initiative fundraising efforts by pulling in more than $22 million, all but $550 of which came from out of state. They spent much of their record-setting haul on a barrage of ads deemed "mostly false" by the Seattle Times.

More than half of the "no" campaign funding came in the form of allegedly illegally laundered money. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle were the leaders in a group of companies that tried to finance the campaign through secret contributions to the Grocery Manufacturers Association. It took a lawsuit from the state attorney general to bring the truth to light.

It turns out that sales of Honest Tea, one of the world's fastest growing organic and non-GMO brands, were joined by sales of Zico, Simply Orange, Odwalla, and Powerade, along with Coke itself, in helping to bankroll a secret scheme to keep GMOs from being labeled.

Fortunately for fans of the right to know what's in our food, there's a petition and boycott campaign underway, launched by the Food Revolution Network (for which I serve as CEO), and the Center for Food Safety. We are pushing Coca-Cola to be accountable to the natural foods consumers from whom it profits, by ceasing to fund efforts aimed at derailing GMO labeling. More than 135,000 people signed on in the first two weeks.

Want to help? Join the Coca-Cola brands boycott, and find out how you can get informed and take action, here.

Ocean Robbins is co-author of Voices of the Food Revolution, and serves as adjunct professor for Chapman University and CEO and co-host (with best-selling author John Robbins) of the 100,000+ member Food Revolution Network. Join the Coca-Cola brands boycott here.