Sponsored By Soda: Are Influencers Peddling Junk Science?

5 min reading time

That aspartame post your favorite influencer just shared? It was paid propaganda.

When the World Health Organization warned about risks of the artificial sweetener, diet and nutrition influencers rushed to calm their followers.

As part of the soda industry’s #safetyofaspartame campaign, these posts called the health concerns “clickbait” and insisted aspartame is A-OK.

But what these posts didn’t say is that the American Beverage Association—aka Big Soda—paid them to say it. Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other sugary drink giants are using influencer marketing to protect their profits, not your health.

Influencers Dismiss Health Concerns After Payments From Industry

When the World Health Organization hinted at risks, dietitians rushed to the defense of the artificial sweetener. Steph Grasso called it “clickbait.” Cara Harbstreet told followers not to buy the “fear mongering.” Nichole Andrews aka “The Oncology Nutrition R.D.”, dismissed the claims as sensationalized “fear mongering.”

But what these influencers didn’t mention is that their posts were sponsored content. Big soda companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi paid them to say it.

By leveraging trusted voices, the food and beverage industry hopes to counteract emerging science that threatens their bottom line. They orchestrated a propaganda campaign on social media to silence health concerns about their products.

So next time your favorite Insta-expert claims aspartame is harmless, think twice. Their advice might be more paid promotion than real talk. When profit is on the line, can you really trust what influencers post?

The Secretive Beverage Lobby Working Washington

The American Beverage Association (ABA) represents Coke, Pepsi, and other major players, but you won’t see its logo splashed across your can of soda. This powerful trade group works behind the scenes to protect Big Soda’s interests.

The ABA has quietly built an influential lobbying machine in Washington and state capitals nationwide. Using millions in corporate cash, it gains access to and sways policymakers from both parties.

A review of federal records reveals the ABA has already spent $930,000 lobbying Congress and agencies this year. That’s on top of $1.62 million in 2022.

Top recipients of ABA donations include key lawmakers like Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), Senator David Scott (D-GA), Senator John Boozman (R-AR), and Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). This bipartisan approach helps the ABA block or weaken proposed soda taxes and regulations.

The ABA’s latest campaign, #safetyofaspartame, aims to shape public opinion. But behind the scenes, the group continues working to stop measures that would impact soda sales and profits.

The ABA may prefer to hide in plain sight, but its political influence is impossible to ignore. This beverage behemoth knows how to play the Washington game.

The ABA’s Fight Over Sugar Health Warnings in San Francisco

In 2015, San Francisco passed a first-of-its-kind law: health warning labels on ads for sugary drinks. The labels had to cover 20% of ad space, stating:

“WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco.”

The law was set to kick in July 2016. But Big Soda fought back.

The American Beverage Association sued, arguing the warnings violated commercial free speech. In September 2017, the 9th Circuit Court agreed, striking down the law.

This case shows soda industry muscle flexing to block regulation and shape perception on sugar and health. It also reveals the uphill battle public health advocates face implementing policies to educate consumers about added sugar risks. Though San Francisco’s law fell, the dispute over sugar warnings and free speech continues.

But Big Soda’s deep pockets and lobbying power stack the deck against health-focused policies. When it comes to added sugar, the beverage industry isn’t afraid to take the gloves off. Consumers’ right to know comes second to protecting sales and profits.

Influencers Are Being Paid To Mislead Their Followers

The investigation uncovered that about half of dietitians and nutritionists with over 10,000 followers had promoted unhealthy foods, supplements, and downplayed health risks in the past year—without disclosing they were paid sponsorships.

Major food, beverage and supplement companies are compensating dozens of credentialed experts to tout their products to millions of Instagram and TikTok followers. These social media promotions encourage consumption of processed junk foods, candy and soda that contradict scientific nutrition guidelines. The financial relationships enabling this questionable advice are rarely made transparent to viewers.

By leveraging respected dietitians, the industry cunningly extends its reach to impressionable consumers and proliferates dubious nutrition claims. Public health advocates argue this deceptive practice spreads harmful messaging under the guise of expertise.

The Lack of Transparency and Oversight

The Federal Trade Commission’s endorsement guides state that if there is a “material connection” between an influencer and a brand they are promoting, it must be disclosed. This includes receiving free products, being paid for a post, or having any financial incentive to promote something.

Many influencers fail to properly disclose sponsorships, either intentionally hiding the connection or negligently ignoring disclosure rules. Vague disclosures like #ad or #sponsored buried in a sea of hashtags are common. But research shows most viewers don’t understand these abbreviated disclosures.

When it comes to issues that have a great impact on our health, clear disclosures are needed to ensure viewers understand why they’re being told what they’re being told.

The Need for Greater Accountability

This investigation exposes alarming lapses in accountability across the influencer marketing and public policy spheres. It’s unacceptable for corporations to pay off social media stars to mislead their followers about potential health risks from using their products.

Most importantly, consumers need to be aware that corporate interests often distort information to serve their bottom line, not public health. Additionally, there are numerous instances of corporate-funded research concluding favorably for their own products and ingredients.

We believe that this shows that it’s important to be skeptical. It’s become clear that massive lobbying groups are using their resources to sway public opinion, and to pay off both our politicians and online influencers to essentially lie to the public.

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