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The viralization of pseudoscience

When inaccurate or hyperbolized diet info is popularized online, the truth about human health goes missing

August 12, 2015 2:00AM ET

Recently, an infographic titled “What happens one hour after drinking a can of Coke” went viral. Created by Niraj Naik of The Renegade Pharmacist website — and based on a 2010 post published at wellness site Bliss Tree — it made the rounds online, appearing in reputable news sources such as The London Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The International Business Times and Medical News Today. A Huffington Post U.K. article on it received 70,040 Facebook shares.

But the infographic makes some scientifically inaccurate statements. It also ignores the larger problem of the long-term health effects of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption, and doesn’t address other public health concerns that relate to the soda industry.

Its first claim is that within 10 minutes of drinking Coca-Cola, when 10 teaspoons of sugar hit your system, “You don’t vomit from the overwhelming sweetness … because phosphoric acid cuts the flavor, allowing you to keep it down.”

A Dunkin’ Donuts chocolate chip muffin delivers 50 grams (over 12 teaspoons) of sugar and phosphoric acid is nowhere to be found on the ingredient list. By the infographic’s logic, our bodies would reject the muffin before we were done eating it in its entirety, which is not the case.

Its second claim is that within 20 minutes, “Your blood sugar spikes, causing an insulin burst. Your liver responds to this by turning any sugar it can get its hands on into fat.”

It is correct that the higher our blood glucose, the more insulin our pancreas secretes. But insulin also signals our cells to absorb as much glucose as possible — for energy or storage — in order to lower the amount left in the bloodstream. Type 2 diabetes develops because cells can no longer efficiently absorb glucose in the blood, thereby leaving substantial amounts floating around. In healthy individuals, any remaining glucose is sent to the liver and stored as glycogen. When glycogen stores are full, the liver converts additional calories from carbohydrates (i.e., the calories in soda) into fat. While consistently high and frequent intakes of sugary foods and beverages can contribute to that development, one can of soda will not.

Its third claim is that within 40 minutes, “Caffeine absorption is complete. Your pupils dilate; your blood pressure rises; as a response, your liver dumps more sugar into your bloodstream.”

While it is true that caffeine is fully absorbed 45 minutes after ingestion, the liver doesn’t dump sugar into our bloodstream as a result of blood pressure rising. It’s actually the other way around: High blood sugar levels can damage nephrons, the filtering structures in the kidneys that help regulate blood pressure.

Its fourth claim is that within 45 minutes, “Dopamine production increases. This is the same way heroin works.”

But increased dopamine production is not in itself a problem. Dopamine production also increases after we exercise; it’s the reason we feel good after a workout.

Additionally, a can of Coca-Cola only contains 34 milligrams of caffeine, a low dose that studies have shown “significantly improves auditory vigilance and visual reaction time.” Only higher doses have been shown to lead to negative effects such as anxiety and nausea. 

The bigger picture

Even putting aside the inaccuracies of the infographic, the immediate bodily reaction to one can of Coca-Cola isn’t as important as the well-documented negative health effects of long-term consumption.

Although soda consumption in the U.S. is declining, the average American still drinks 44 gallons — approximately 466 cans, or 18,640 grams of sugar — each year. Long-term consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with increased risk of metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes. Epidemiological research also links consistent intake of sugar-sweetened beverages to increased heart disease risk. Tellingly, a 2013 systematic review published in the Public Libraries of Science found that 83 percent of studies with no soda industry ties found a link between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and weight gain, while 83 percent of studies with industry ties did not.

Fatalistic pearl clutching about the negative health effects of certain foods and beverages gives industry a much-desired opportunity to lump all criticism as fearmongering.

The soda industry is adept at misdirection. On Aug. 10, The New York Times reported on the Coca-Cola-funded Global Energy Balance Network, “which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.”

Coca-Cola’s century-long history of sponsoring sporting events diverts health criticisms using the same argument. The most recent example is London’s 2015 Rugby World Cup, where marketing efforts include branded rugby balls, free cans of soda and — of course — promotion of physical activity. Physical activity is the soda industry’s perfect distractor, because it puts the focus on calories (which can be burned off) rather than on the damaging effects of sugar.

Health advocates should also be concerned with marketing to children. Coca-Cola boasts that it doesn’t target children under 12 in its ads. (Do the company’s branded stuffed animals get a pass because they are technically not ads?) Nevertheless, Australia’s Advertising Standards Bureau recently forced the soda giant to scrap a Fanta ad campaign because its television ads and an accompanying phone app were primarily directed at children.

Also worrying is rampant Coca-Cola consumption in developing markets. In Altos de Chiapas, Mexico, Coke is more affordable and accessible than water, and the average resident drinks over two liters of it daily. The area’s “Coca-Colonization” — largely due to the soda giant’s political maneuvering — is so widespread that Coke has replaced a traditional alcoholic Mayan beverage during religious ceremonies.

The downside of hyperbole

There is a final, important lesson in this infographic for health advocates: Steer clear of hyperbolic claims. Fatalistic pearl clutching about the negative health effects of certain foods and beverages gives industry a much-desired opportunity to lump all criticism as fearmongering and not address more important issues. Criticizing the high-fructose corn syrup in soda is a losing battle for health advocates because it simply results in products such as Throwback Pepsi, made with cane sugar, or sodas sweetened with agave nectar, which are not any healthier.

After the first infographic went viral, the same blogger produced a sequel infographic that examines what happens to the body within an hour of drinking diet soda. This one mentions that “the potentially deadly combination of caffeine and aspartame creates a short addictive high similar in the way cocaine works.” Again, this is an exaggeration; there is nothing potentially lethal about the combination of caffeine and aspartame.

As for artificial sweeteners, the most valid concerns are that they may negatively affect the microorganisms in our digestive tracts, called gut flora and may increase cravings for sweet foods by affecting our neurological reward system differently than sugar or other caloric sweeteners.

There are plenty of scientifically sound reasons soda — regular or diet — is best avoided and the soda industry is damaging to public health. But let’s leave the viral memes to cute cats.

Andy Bellatti, M.S., R.D., is a Las Vegas–based dietitian. He is also a co-founder and the strategic director of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, a group that advocates for ethical and socially responsible partnerships within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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