A Slick Pitch For "Negative Calories"

Coke and Nestlé use the buzzwords of weight loss while avoiding health claims

The giant billboard in Midtown Manhattan is simple and direct: "Burning calories is now officially delicious." Below this statement stands a can of carbonated tea called Enviga, jointly marketed by Coca-Cola Co. (KO ) and Nestlé (NSRGY ). The two companies say clinical research shows that the new caffeinated drink is not just low calorie or even zero calorie but "negative calorie."

Leaving aside "officially delicious," what exactly is a negative calorie? The back of each $1.45 can explains that by drinking three 12-oz. Envigas a day--each just 5 calories--healthy adults of normal weight between the ages of 18 and 35 will burn 60-100 calories more per day than they would otherwise.

This assertion has a lot of scientists scratching their heads. Consuming caffeinated drinks speeds up metabolism, causing the drinker to burn calories. That's nothing new. But as New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle (no relation to the company) points out, burning an extra 100 calories a day won't do much for weight or health.

In any case, why would drinking three cans of Enviga have a bigger impact than gulping equal amounts of other caffeinated, sugar-free drinks? The answer, say Enviga's makers, lies in an extract of green tea known as EGCG, which amplifies the effect of the 100 milligrams of caffeine per can (about the same as a cup of coffee) without sending the drinker off on a teeth-chattering jag.

By way of proof, Coke's chief scientist, Rhona S. Applebaum, points to two small trials involving EGCG and one short study of Enviga. In the latter, over the course of 72 hours, a few dozen test subjects burned more calories on Enviga than they did when drinking an Enviga-like placebo.

Whether or not the science measures up, experts in health-food marketing say the two companies have staged a clever high-wire act. Obese Americans are bound to notice Enviga--they can hardly miss the ads, which go national in February. Yet nowhere in the literature do the two partners promote the product specifically as a weight-loss brew. So both the ingredient dosages and carefully worded health claims should land just below the radar of regulators who would take action if they spot bogus health claims. And though one watchdog group has threatened to sue over false advertising, the companies say the claims for the drink are justified.

Amidst tepid sales of carbonated sodas and fruit drinks, both Coke and Nestlé have been searching for new markets. Bottled teas and nutrient-enhanced drinks present tasty opportunities. Sales of the former have been growing steadily. And nutrient drinks have shot up more than 240% over the past five years, topping $1 billion at wholesale in 2006, according to researcher Beverage Marketing Corp.

Nestlé spotted this trend a few years ago. In 2002 its management team zeroed in on nutrition science pertaining to diabetes and weight loss. Nestlé funded some of the primary studies on EGCG in green tea, leading to Enviga. Such products also made sense to Coke, which owns health brands such as Odwalla, makes vitamin-enriched Minute Maid (KO ) orange juice, and is a long-time Nestlé partner. Beverage Marketing Managing Director Gary A. Hemphill says the two are pushing the frontier in the health-and-wellness category. Health drinks that help burn calories "are something untried and underdeveloped right now," he says.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog group, bristles at the way Enviga is positioned. On Dec. 4 it threatened to sue Coca-Cola and Nestlé for marketing a weight-loss product whose claims can't be substantiated. The manufacturers say the drink isn't aimed at overweight consumers, "but look at all the buzzwords," says Michael F. Jacobson, the center's executive director. "Why would someone want `negative calories' other than for losing weight?"

John Hackett, Coke's senior marketing vice-president for North America, insists it's not about weight loss and all but admits Enviga's impact is mostly psychological. "The tagline of this campaign is `Think Positive, Drink Negative,'" he explains, adding that Enviga should stimulate fresh ideas about how to burn calories and doesn't replace exercise or healthy eating. And nutritionists who think it does nothing? "It sounds like they are not going to be consumers of this product," Hackett says.

By Burt Helm

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