Sprite's Pollan-ian Message

Because we don't have cable, I'm often disconnected from many dominant advertising streams. Which means I often miss gems (in the sense that they're such good fodder for D&O) like Sprite's most recent advertising campaign, which asks "What's in a Sprite?" and proclaims "It's perfectly clear."

I recently came across a box of Sprite cans in my office kitchen, and thought this absorption of Pollan-style thinking by this enormous soda manufacturer (owned by Coca-Cola) was fascinating. Sprite is making use of the recent, Michael Pollan-inspired cultural discussion about ingredients and the rule of thumb now known as "The 5-Ingredient Rule" (try googling it, you'll get millions of hits). 

Below the slogan, the box read "Sometimes ingredients can be confusing. The simple ingredients, no caffeine and natural flavors in Sprite are easy to understand. So you can feel good about the choice you've made for your family."

And yet, when we actually look at Sprite's ingredients list, "carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, natural flavors, sodium citrate, sodium benzoate," I'm still left with some significant confusion:

What do we really know about high fructose corn syrup? Natural Flavors? Sodium benzoate?

Well, here are a few things:

High Fructose Corn Syrup:
  •  This refined, highly-processed sugar from corn has been linked to kidney disease, fatty liver disease, obesity (HFCS may get more quickly converted to fat than other sugars, according to The Journal of Nutrition).  
  • Foods containing HFCS are nearly always heavily processed and lack any meaningful nutritional value. 
  • HFCS also relies on corn monoculture, which has a huge environmental footprint, depleting soil nutrients, requiring more pesticides and fertilizer while weakening topsoil. 
  • (Read more on all these points here: Still Spooked by High-Fructose Corn Syrup)

Natural Flavors:
  • “Natural flavors and artificial flavors sometimes contain exactly the same chemicals, produced through different methods… A natural flavor is not necessarily more healthful or purer than an artificial one.”  (From Eric Schlosser, via Don't Be Fooled by "Natural" Flavors)
  • Anything can be "natural" flavor, as long as it's derived from a "natural" source, that means all of the following are frequently used food additives that qualify as “all natural": (From Processed Food: Trick or Treat?)
    • Beaver Anal Glands (used in vanilla or raspberry flavoring)
    • Hair and / or feathers: "Called L-cysteine or cystine by the processed food world, this non-essential amino acid is made from human hair or duck feathers and is used as a dough conditioner to improve the texture of breads and baked goods."
    • Beetle Juice: "often called shellac, resinous glaze, or confectioner’s glaze on ingredient labels. Made from the secretions of the female lac bug, this substance is scraped from trees and branches then processed to be used on some of your favorite shiny candies and sprinkles."        
    • Crushed bugs: Known as Carmine, Crimson Lake, Cochineal, or Natural Red #4 on ingredient labels, this red food coloring additive is made from insects like the cochineal beetle. Frequently used in yogurts and beverages to give them a ruby-red color, a cochineal beetle can be a tough to spot on ingredient labels since it can be listed as a natural color.

Sodium Benzoate:
  • This preservative has been linked to damage to DNA (like the kind that leads to Parkinson's Disease and cirrhosis of the liver) and hyperactivity in children. (From Diet Coke to Drop Additive in DNA Damage Fear)
  • It also has the potential to form benzene, a potent carcinogen. (More here)
  • A historical note: Harvey Washington Wiley, the founder of the FDA, unsuccessfully fought to have sodium benzoate banned from foods over 100 years ago. Perhaps one day his century-old hope will be fulfilled. (More here, in this JAMA retrospective).

Did you know all this? How "clear" are Sprite's ingredients, after all?

What are other examples you all know of of these sorts of processed foods that have co-opted this language of simplicity, few-ingredients, etc? 


  1. I can't remember exactly which book it was in - in may have been in even more than one, or in an interview somewhere - but I do recall that Pollan, recognizing how likely companies would be to co-opt the 5-ingredient rule for their own ends, switched it to something like "Don't eat anything that's advertised." Also, "If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don't." Very nice!

    To answer your question, I remember seeing a large number of ice creams advertised as having fewer than five ingredients. Considering that the main ones were milk (from conventional cows), sugar, and "natural" (sic) or artificial flavors, I wasn't too tempted.

    Beaver anal glands?! Sounds like something out of oriental medicine. Probably good for the libido!


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