What role can a soft drink company play in America’s war on obesity? In the face of controversial decisions like New York City’s soda ban, The Coca-Cola Company believes it can play a role in a healthier diet and has instituted several programs to inspire people to live healthier, active lifestyles. Some of these programs involve rebuilding community parks, while another program calls upon physicians to record physical activity as a vital sign during patient visits. MNN, which counts Coca-Cola as one of its sponsors, interviewed Dr. Rhona Applebaum, Coca-Cola’s Chief Scientific and Regulatory Officer, to find out more. Applebaum received her master’s degree in nutrition from Drexel University and her doctorate in food microbiology from University of Wisconsin. She leads the Scientific and Regulatory Affairs Division at Coca-Cola, which is in part responsible for driving research and education programs about calorie intake, health, physical activity and food safety.

MNN: What can a soft drink company like Coca-Cola do to help people live healthier lives?
Rhona Applebaum: Coca-Cola’s active, healthy living philosophy is about encouraging people to eat right and move more. I subscribe to the fact that it’s about the whole diet and not about an individual food, which is what some people tend to focus on.

Active, healthy living is absolutely essential for our company; it’s not just some nice sound bite we like to say — it’s a fact. We know that our business can only be as healthy as the communities in which we operate. That’s why we’ve supported programs like Triple Play that encourage kids to eat a balanced diet, become more physically active and increase their ability to engage in healthy relationships.

And in 2012 our philanthropic arm of the Company – The Coca-Cola Foundation – awarded almost $10 million to healthy living initiatives across North America.

Are soft drinks unfairly targeted in your opinion? Do they have a rightful place in the diet?

We firmly believe all our products have a place in an active, healthy lifestyle. Any food or beverage can fit into your life — it’s all about how much and how often. At the end of the day, we encourage people to be as active as they can be; we encourage and promote physical activity. The higher your energy balance — balancing the calories you take in with the calories you burn — the healthier you’re going to be. We consume calories from many different sources. But we shouldn’t single out one food or beverage alone as the unique cause of obesity.

Please explain higher energy balance.
‘Energy balance’ refers to the concept of balancing calories in with calories out to maintain a healthy weight. Let’s compare two people, one who consumes 2,500 calories per day versus one who consumes only 1,500 calories. You might think the person who only eats 1,500 calories a day would look healthier because he appears thin, but that person probably is not getting all the essential nutrients he needs. At 1,500 calories, he’s probably not going to get the necessary physical activity levels, either.

On the other hand, if you’re eating a balanced diet and taking in 2,500 calories a day and are very physically active (and the activity can be moderate and not necessarily vigorous); if you’re moving and eating and you’re burning as many calories as you consume, then sure, you can enjoy any food and beverage within the Coca-Cola portfolio, including ones that are low-calorie or zero-calorie.

What has Coca-Cola done to encourage its employees to lead healthier lifestyles?
We have a great wellness facility at our Atlanta headquarters. We have signs throughout our corporate campus reminding employees to take the stairs and to park far away from the entrance. We also provide incentives  for our employees around the country to be physically active, including discounted gym memberships, $60-off annual medical contributions just for completing online health assessments, and we also encourage our people to measure their health stats regularly.

Personally, I have a standing desk. (Yes, I practice what I preach.) But to be healthy, you don’t need anything complicated or expensive. If you work at a desk all day, you need to get moving throughout the day and try to stand as much as you can while you’re on the computer. Simply take a walk when you get a chance during the day or take the stairs … it’s the little things that will add up.  

Do you think Coca-Cola is playing a part in reducing in childhood obesity?
I think we’re a part of the solution but it will take all of us — government, business and civil society — working together to find meaningful solutions to such a complex issue. In fact, we worked with the beverage industry to remove full-calorie soft drinks from schools in 2006 and replaced them with lower-calorie, smaller-portion beverage options.  By 2010, we reduced beverage calories delivered to schools by a dramatic 90 percent. We are also working with leaders like The National Governors Council on Physical Fitness to build fitness centers across the country that  provide the means for people to get active. To help change the way people think about nutrition and exercise we need to work together. What I’d like to see accomplished, and what Coca-Cola is striving for in the schools, is to better develop standards of fitness and nutrition. We have testing standards in basic subjects, but we also need nutrition and fitness standards because kids who eat better, and who are more active, will thrive in school.

What are the most successful programs Coca-Cola has implemented to date to increase health awareness?
We have several programs that are contributing greatly to fostering and teaching principles of healthy lifestyles, but I’ll name two: Triple Play is a program that was launched in 2005 by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America in collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services with support from The Coca-Cola Company to encourage kids to eat a balanced diet, become more physically active and increase their ability to engage in healthy relationships. A review of the program found that boys and girls who participated in Triple Play were more physically active and had a better understanding of nutrition than those who did not participate. The kids’ self-esteem also soared.

The National Governors Council on Physical Fitness is also making a big impact. We’ve dedicated more than $5 million to provide 100 communities with new fitness centers for schools. In addition, The Coca-Cola Foundation has awarded $3.4 million in grants to support fitness and nutrition programs in the U.S. and around the world. Working with the National Foundation for Governor's Fitness Councils and the American College of Sports Medicine, Coca-Cola will place 100 new fitness centers in schools across the U.S. over the next five years. The unbranded centers will feature new fitness equipment and provide more than 5 million workouts annually; helping communities put physical activity back into schools.

You work in a male-dominated world. What was your experience like going through college and post-graduate?
For my post-graduate work, I focused on science: the theoretical and practical elements in nutrition as well as healthy lifestyle factors; toxicology; plant pathology and sustainable agriculture. Long before the days of social media, I realized the importance of networking and working in a global society. Yes, I’m the first female chief scientist at Coca-Cola. Although women are still underrepresented in science, my abilities were developed because of amazing male mentors. They looked at me as nothing but a professional who they wanted to groom. I am where I am today because of my ‘STEM’ foundation (science, technology, engineering and math) mentoring. We’re not going to be able to compete in terms of pioneering developments in health and science without that kind of mentoring ... I’m very passionate about that.

I do think that women are catching up, but we still need more women to go into STEM disciplines. At Wisconsin there were many women Ph.D. candidates in science-related disciplines, but that’s not always the case across the U.S. or globally. And, though more is needed, I am proud to say we have many women working at Coca-Cola throughout the company.