[Photograph: karat on Flickr]

As I write this review, an iced glass of caffeine-free Diet Coke sits beside my computer. Calorie-free sodas are a part of my diet, and I'm likely to reach for a Coca-Cola product in the corner store. Even if you eschew sodas of all sorts, opening a Powerade, Nestea, Odwalla, or Dasani bottle (among many others) still supports the Coca-Cola Company. This global soft-drinks brand is colossal, with a net revenue of over $30 billion in 2009. And the company has come up against some serious backlash, both for its products' nutritional values and for its questionable actions overseas. Michael Blanding explores these controversies in The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World's Favorite Soft Drink.

The book is loosely separated into two parts: first, the history of the company, and second, accounts of its current problematic operations. While some books, such as In-N-Out Burger or The King of Vodka take time to probe the emotional and economic depths of a powerful company's beginnings, Blanding takes a more rapid-fire approach. Quickly we learn that Coke was first bottled in 1886 by a pharmacist named John Pemberton. There was, indeed, coca leaf in the original formula but it was removed before Coca-Cola was distributed widely. In 1887, the company was largely bought out by Asa Candler, who began marketing the product in earnest.

Early marketing techniques advertised Coke as a medicinal product, but by the early 1900s patent medicines were out of style. Soda shops were the primary market for soft drinks at the time, and Coke distributed to such places nationwide. This very profitable business was going smoothly until the sugar ration of World War I. The government limited soda manufacturers to half their normal syrup quotas, causing business to slump. But Coca-Cola held on, and continued building their brand after the war.

During World War II, the company reached a turning point. After much lobbying, the government allowed Coca-Cola to maintain regular production even in the face of another sugar ration—provided that much of their soda went to soldiers fighting overseas. This international exposure planted Coke in new and untapped markets. The company's ability to capitalize on international markets has been its growth factor ever since.

After this perfunctory look at Coke's development, Blanding moves on to discuss one of the biggest problems facing the brand—obesity. He tells the story of several teachers and students who came to realize that their elementary and high schools were contracting with Coca-Cola for exclusive beverage distribution rights. Believing that soda in schools led to increased obesity among students, these activists campaigned to get rid of Coke on school premises—and sometimes succeeded. Overall, national focus on obesity has hurt Coke's sales in the past few years, while it has encouraged many "healthy" beverage brands to attempt to build sales in a nutritionally-minded marketplace.

Much of Blanding's narrative revolves around claims that Coca-Cola has funded militias in Mexico and Colombia that use violence against union leaders at soda-bottling plants in those countries. These claims are serious, though Coke has denied all involvement. Blanding provides gory details of what happens to victims of militia attacks, and is clearly frustrated with the lack of action being taken against Coke. He also catalogs other exploitative behavior, such as Coca-Cola bottling plants in India that sap the local villages of water. The book doesn't paint a rosy picture for Coke.

Given its title and subject matter, you may have already guessed that this book carries a rather overpowering bias against the Coca-Cola Company. Blanding is critical of nearly all Coke-related operations both domestic and overseas. He does provide some evidence for his claims and powerful first-hand accounts of Coke's wrongdoings. But as I read, I found myself constantly seeking out a counterpoint, some proof beyond Blanding's word of Coke's crimes. Perhaps that is exactly Blanding's frustration—the mainstream media isn't talking about these issues; and Coke's lobbying and influence seem to silence any criticism. This book is a heavy read, but will surely open your eyes to the alleged consequences of huge global companies and the power of a ubiquitous brand name.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves consuming and learning about as much food as possible. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine. She blogs at Feasting on Providence.


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