Warren Buffett's love affair with Coke

“We Egyptians believed once in English liberalism and English sympathy; but we believe no longer, for facts are stronger than words. Your liberalness we see plainly is only for yourselves, and your sympathy with us is that of the wolf for the lamb which he deigns to eat.”
—Mohammed Abduh, a founder of Islamic Modernism, 1895(1)

Jeffrey Dunn was president of Coca-Cola for North and South America, at a time when soft drink sales were steadily rising. American children were drinking a third of a cup of sugar a day, and Coke executives wanted to increase that. In 2001 Dunn went to Brazil, where the company was excited about the new sales potential in that vast market. In Brazil, Dunn told an interviewer, he felt his stomach sink. “Suddenly, the kids there, along with the kids in the United States, seemed so unfairly lured, so helpless in the face of the company’s tactics, so utterly vulnerable to the addictive powers of Coke.” Dunn tried to get the company to adopt more sane policies. When that failed, Dunn resigned.(2)

Which countries have the best nutrition?

A decade before Dunn flew off to Brazil, The Lancet, one of the world’s leading health journals, was also busy. It began the biggest study of worldwide nutrition ever undertaken.(3)

Lancet researchers compiled data from around the globe about what people in each country ate and drank every day. It tracked consumption of 10 healthy foods (including fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and fish) and 7 unhealthy ones (including sugar-sweetened drinks, processed meats, sodium, and saturated fat). In 2010, after 20 years of globalization, researchers could see how diets had changed.

None of us expected the U.S.A. to take the “Best Diet” award, and indeed it did not. It placed far below average, worse than every country in Africa, worse than every country in South and Southeast Asia, worse than most of South America — in short, worse than what are typically called “the least developed countries.” But it was neck and neck with Uzbekistan.

map showing worldwide nutrition by country
Nutrition worldwide: Green indicates countries with healthier diets; orange and red are least-healthy. (Copyright Inamura et al, used under Creative Commons BY license)

We might have predicted that the Best Diet award would go to one of the usual suspects, like Denmark or Sweden. It did not. The Scandinavians beat the USA, but that’s the best we can say for them. Australians, Japanese, and Western Europeans generally had better diets than Americans, but worse than the poorest countries.

The winners? The best overall diets were in Chad and Mali; close behind were Laos, Myanmar and Guyana. They beat the rich countries. Few Westerners can even find half of those countries on a map, but they won the healthy diet award.

Yet the Western countries named above are spending billions of dollars on aid, much of it to bring better health and nutrition to the “less developed” nations.

Children as a target

On reflection, the rankings aren’t a surprise. Even in poor countries, most people have enough to eat most of the time. The growing challenge today is not too little, but too much of the wrong things.

People in Myanmar fill up mostly with rice, inexpensive fresh fruit that perhaps is free for the picking, a few vegetables from the family garden, and on good nights, the family divides a small fish among themselves. It’s not that they’ve read the latest nutrition book. They just can’t afford Coke and potato chips, with ice cream for dessert.

It won’t last. “Western snack and soft drink makers are targeting children [in poor and middle-income countries] in ways that will damage their health,” writes the New York Times, summarizing the Lancet report.(4)

Coke has spent a century figuring out how to make its product as addictive as possible — there was even real cocaine in Coke, back when that was legal. It has refined its secret formula, to achieve just the right balance of sweetness but not too much. It has a century of aggressive marketing experience; Coke models always have white teeth, trim bodies, and happy friends. It knows how to manipulate the media.(5)

And Coke has an army to drive its product into new territory: The Coke workforce is bigger than the army of all but 20 nations. The kids in Myanmar won’t stand a chance.

Teaching the World to Sing

From Brazil and Myanmar let’s continue on, to… Omaha, Nebraska.

There, in the middle of America, is one of the world’s most down-to-earth billionaires: Warren Buffett. He’s famous for his stock-picking prowess. If you had invested $75 when he started his stock fund, you’d have $1.2 million today. Already famous for that, he got more headlines in 2006 when he pledged $31 billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose primary focus is global health. He is one of the foundation’s three trustees. (Bill and Melinda Gates are the other two.) Magazines call Buffett the world’s biggest philanthropist. He gives money to promote global health and to help poor children, and he challenges other billionaires to do the same. Moreover, he can hire the leading experts to advise him on the best ways to achieve his goals.

But today, as we arrive in Omaha, he’s not heading off for a Gates Foundation conference to heal the world. He’s going to provide entertainment for Coca-Cola shareholders by singing “I’d like to teach the world to sing” as he strums a ukulele. His conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway, is Coke’s biggest shareholder.(6)

One hand gives, the other hand takes

Yes, you heard right. The man who, with one hand, publicly gives billions to the cause of global health, with the other hand is supporting the biggest junk food company in the world,(7) which does everything it legally can to destroy the health of children, and adults, who until now had pretty healthy diets and strong, white teeth. And if the law gets in the way — well, do you know just what money can buy these days?(8)

Buffett could speak out. He publicly pressured Coca-Cola to reduce what he considered excessive executive pay, which affected the value of the stocks that his conglomerate held.(9) Meanwhile, Coke’s relentless marketing pushes poor children to give up their healthy diets in favor of junk food that causes malnourishment and obesity and makes their teeth rot.

It is true that if Buffett didn’t invest in Coke, somebody else would. It is also true that the world agreed in the last century that “if I don’t do it, someone else will” is not an excuse.

And then, he gives away some of his profits so aid workers can fly around the world and repair a little of the damage.

* * *

Some may argue that soft drinks are just fine, in moderation. We agree. But Warren Buffett is not performing his song-and-uke performance for a business that believes in moderation. He’s supporting an industrial behemoth, which uses every possible mechanism to sell more, and more, and more, of its health-threatening product. One top Coke executive was so disgusted he left the company. But Warren Buffett is still entertaining the troops. Why think about children with rotting teeth? You get better karma from singing the world a song, in perfect harmony.

Notes and Sources

1. Mohammed Abduh is quoted in Pankaj Mishra’s absorbing book From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia.

2. Jeffrey Dunn’s story is told by Michael Moss in Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.

3. The aid industry is full of philanthropists who dispense money with one hand while the other hand, clawing to make more money, creates bigger problems. Anand Giridharadas powerfully describes this phenomenon in his book Winners Take All: The elite charade of changing the world. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offers an example of it: The foundation funded the Lancet’s nutrition study; it is also a major beneficiary of Coke’s profits.

4. “Food Habits Getting Worse Around the World,” by Donald G. McNeil Jr., in the New York Times, 23 February 2015. The full report is at “Dietary quality among men and women in 187 countries in 1990 and 2010: a systematic assessment,” published by Lancet Global Health, 2015. We have drawn information from both sources.

5. Media manipulation by Coke: In another universe, Coke would be inundated in bad press. But the company has enough money to prevent that. It funds researchers who conveniently produce findings that sugar and soft drinks aren’t really bad for health, the problem is that people don’t exercise enough. Dr. Marion Nestle documents many of these efforts in her meticulous, frightening book Soda Politics. Like the tobacco lobby and climate-change doubters, the soft drink industry has no facts or science to refute the charges against it, so it tries instead to cast a haze over them: “We can’t be certain…” is a favorite starting point. In 2015 the National Press Foundation hosted a “webinar” to “highlight common challenges in communicating science and offer specific tips to enhance the fidelity and richness of scientific reporting.” Among these was “The importance of communicating uncertainty.” The webinar was sponsored with money from Coke; the two speakers both had extensive ties to Coke. This was reported by Health News Review; we learned about it from killercoke.org.

6. Warren Buffett’s love affair with Coke, both as a drink and as an investment, is widely reported. You can “See Warren Buffett singing Coke’s song” on the Fortune website, 29 April 2015

7. PepsiCo is bigger. In Appalachia, a palate of rotting teeth is called “Mountain Dew mouth” in honor of a Pepsi product. But it sells less soft drinks and more other products, including breakfast cereals and Quaker Oats. Overall, Coke, with its focus on soft drinks, wins the title of Junk Food King.

8. Money buys quite a bit these days. In 2010, the National Park Service was about to institute a plan on plastic bottles in the Grand Canyon. The director of the National Park Service abruptly quashed the plan: Coke, which had donated $13 million to the National Park Foundation, strongly opposed it. The New York Times broke this story, after a park service employee sent them emails. Without that anonymous employee, we’d probably never have heard about it. The Times story quotes Jon Jarvis, the official who reversed the ban: “My decision to hold off the ban was not influenced by Coke, but rather the service-wide implications to our concessions contracts, and frankly the concern for public safety in a desert park.” We appreciate the frankness, Jon. Getting back to reality: If Coke is brazen enough to try this in the United States, shall we believe that it behaves better in Honduras? (Also see Bribes.)

Not to be outdone, McDonald’s spent $2.5 million hosting McTeacher’s Night fundraisers for Maryland schools; the state PTA then urged parents to ask their schools to show a documentary that featured a McDonald’s perspective on nutrition. Full story: “A super-size school’s beef for McDonald’s” by Roberto A. Ferdman, in The Washington Post, 30 Oct. 2015.

9. “Buffett Pressures Coca-Cola Over Executive Pay,” Wall Street Journal, updated 30 April 2014.

Top cartoon: Warren Buffett Cartoon by Chittakone Vilayphong and KarmaColonialism.org (Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA-4.0)

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