Toxic shock

Natasha Harris, who died in February 2010, after drinking up to 10 litres of Coke a day.

Natasha Harris, who died in February 2010, after drinking up to 10 litres of Coke a day. Photo: Supplied

A woman dies, gasping for breath, sitting on her toilet as her heart finally gives out. She has been drinking about 10 litres of coke every day. That’s more than twice the safe daily limit of caffeine, and almost a kilogram of sugar daily.

She drank so much of the stuff her teeth had rotted away, and at least one of her children was also born with no enamel on their teeth, her family say.* The New Zealand coroner found she would not have died if it weren’t for her dependence on Coke. 

At the same time as his ruling emerges, but on the other side of the world, in Europe, the prestigious medical journal The Lancet releases a report on "non-communicable", or lifestyle, diseases.

Two Australian academics argue the alcohol and processed food industries are displaying the same behaviour as Big Tobacco, increasing their profits and market share at the cost of human lives.

The stats are pretty scary. While Natasha Harris died in a tragic and humiliating manner, in the very same year another 18 million people died from complications relating to high blood pressure and blood sugar, cholesterol and obesity.

"Much of [this] could be attributed to the consumption of ultraprocessed foods and drinks," Rob Moodie and Bruce Neal wrote in The Lancet.

They believe self-regulation is failing, and show how the alcohol and processed food industries are behaving in much the same way as Big Tobacco, lobbying governments and disputing scientific evidence to protect their ever-expanding products and market share.

The coroner and Natasha’s husband both believe warning labels should be put on Coke. Her family has said they did not believe her Coke consumption could be dangerous, because there are no warnings on the product.

When I told one of my libertarian friends I was writing about Prof Moodie and Neal’s report, he was pissed off.

“I'm just imagining it...,” he wrote. "Science says govt should take over all our food and drink choices! Mandates and rations all round! It's science! A study said it so it must be so!”

Now despite the slightly worrying inference that science is not to be trusted (yeah, you’d think after the whole “tobacco is good for you, don’t listen to the scientists … unless they’re paid for by the tobacco industry” era, people would be a little embarrassed to associate themselves with that kind of attitude), he raises a serious point.

How much regulation of companies is ok, and how much of our unhealthy lifestyles should be left up to us?

Anyone who has tried to navigate a supermarket aisle while on a diet knows how difficult it can be to even fully understand what you are putting in your body.

And as multinational food producers grow, they bump out local, fresh food providers and replace them with their own, ultraprocessed, cheaper products. Already, the top ten food companies produce 50 per cent of what Americans eat. And internationally the top ten companies produce 15 per cent of the whole world’s food, the Lancet paper says.

As these companies grow, it’s only going to get harder, more expensive, and more niche, to want to regularly eat the type of foods our bodies need to stay healthy.

But what is the answer? In the case of tobacco – which is directly responsible for the deaths of so many of its consumers, and has built a market out of misleading advertising and corrupt lobbying – it seems fair enough to say that we want to put individual people’s health over the rights of industry to continue selling its brands (say, in the case of plain packaging).

But what about food, a product we actually need to stay alive? Strict regulation of food companies flies in the face of the commitment to market freedom that underpins both major political parties in Australia, and which many people believe strongly in.

There is clearly a balance to be struck between our health, the quality and length of our lives, and the ability of legitimate companies to act freely, innovate and make profits and jobs (although I don't buy the argument it's a straight government intervention vs individual choice issue: often regulation gives people more choice, when it forces industry to give them more info about what is actually in their food).

Where you fall in this debate cuts down into some pretty deep political beliefs.

And it doesn’t just stop at regulation of industry. As I’ve written about here, we are now learning more about the ways in which early life poverty could change our most fundamental genetic characteristics, a process known as epigenetics.

These emerging findings are “politicising researchers like never before,” the chief executive of the public health association says.

Poverty and health are deeply intertwined, and it’s clear that it’s not just our individual choices that govern what we put into our bodies.

The question is, are we willing to make the political choices that might to turn out to be the most effective in dealing with these issues?

*I look forward to the series of opinion pieces jumping to her defence, a la Chrissie Swan, defending her against the apparent barrage of commentary saying it shouldn’t be her choice to decide what she puts in her body while pregnant.

22 comments

  • Not to defend or refute the dangers of drinking excessive amounts of Coca-Cola, but drinking 10 litres water in a day would cause water intoxication which is also potentially lethal. Should we expect warning labels saying as much on bottled water?

    Ms Harris obviously needed help but ultimately she was an adult and the choice to drink Coke excessively was hers. Common sense would tell most adults that such behavior is extremely dangerous for your body. It's not a giant leap to speculate that Natasha was psychologically or emotionally impaired in some way and her abuse of Coca-Cola was an attempt to self medicate.

    It's seems disingenuous to blame Coke for her death because she probably would have met the same fate if she'd drunk 10 litres of Nescafe Blend 43 every day for years, or even plain water.

    Commenter
    Jessica
    Location
    Mosman
    Date and time
    February 14, 2013, 2:02AM
    • Hahah! @Jessica - there it is - exactly what Amy said would happen.

      Commenter
      Sheba
      Date and time
      February 14, 2013, 8:58AM
    • The problem is people do not have common sense any more. We have Dietary Guidelines advising us on how many serves of the various food groups we should be having each day. Water is advised as the drink of choice, soft drink is classified as a "sometimes food" or something to have occasionally. With the dietary guidelines in place we should not be needing labels on everything telling us what we should be having regularly and what we should be having sometimes. It all comes back to common sense, and sadly as stated before the majority of people do not seem to have this anymore!

      Commenter
      where's the common sense???
      Location
      NSW
      Date and time
      February 14, 2013, 9:10AM
    • Eerie, isn't it? Perhaps she's a distant relative of Nostradamus. Seriously though, a little warning label on a Coke bottle wouldn't have stopped Natasha. I'm sure many of her family and friends would have pleaded with her to stop, but she didn't.

      Anyway, listing the ingredients of products on the packaging is mandatory. Maybe they should put *WARNING - THIS PRODUCT CONTAINS THESE INGREDIENTS* above them. Or maybe adults should just take responsibility for their choices. Now there's a wacky idea.

      Commenter
      Jessica
      Location
      Mosman
      Date and time
      February 14, 2013, 9:41AM
    • Completely agree there needs to be a limitations and warnings on processed food, which is actually not food at all but food-like-stuff. I believe one day people will look back on this period in history of toxic eating, resulting in obesity and cancer and disease, the same way we look at video of kids dancing around in agent orange in the 60s.

      However I also agree that anyone who drinks 10 litres of cola a day has more going on behind the scenes than simply not understanding it might be bad for you.

      Commenter
      missminute
      Date and time
      February 14, 2013, 10:42AM
  • I'm sick of hearing people say they have a food intolerance. What they really have is a chemical intolerance. The stuff on supermarket shelves can't even be called food anymore. Even "food" in the health food isle is full of chemicals if you read the small print instead of the screaming labels like "gluten free" etc. Consumers need to be educated to avoid anything that contains artificial colours, flavours & preservatives because these things will eventually kill you one way or another (pancreatic cancer, etc). People say it was the amount of sugar in the Coke that killed this mum but there is no evidence that was the case.

    Commenter
    No more chemicals
    Location
    Lismore
    Date and time
    February 14, 2013, 8:42AM
    • Ok. What is your solution to my intolerance to oranges and orange juice (all kinds, including fresh squeezed)? If I pick an orange off the tree in my mum's backyard and then eat it, I will be sick. No chemicals in that.

      You try eating a kilo of sugar everyday and see how long you last...

      Commenter
      Lauren_H07
      Date and time
      February 14, 2013, 9:11AM
    • couldn't agree with you more. I suffer from food intolerances but i agree i believe it is the chemicals that go in foods these days. I recently travelled to the UK and had no problems with foods over there however came back to Australia and the first two weeks i suffered even though i was following the diet advised by my dietitian. Everything in my house now is made fresh - no more pre-packed foods with their added preservatives, additives and other chemicals.

      Commenter
      where's the common sense???
      Location
      NSW
      Date and time
      February 14, 2013, 9:16AM
    • You're very wrong on gluten free products - I know, I've been reading the labels and eating the foods for over a decade. You don't know as much about food intolerances as you apparently think you do.

      Commenter
      pb
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      February 14, 2013, 11:22AM
    • Yep, them there chemicals are poison! I heard the other day that Sydney water was FULL of dihydrogen oxide...FULL of it!

      To be serious CHEMICAL is the name we use to describe a basic building block of a substance. Food, regardless of whether it was organically grown then hand picked by virgins is MADE ENTIRELY OF CHEMICALS. It is nonsensical to say that food intolerance in not food it's chemicals. Food is chemicals and chemicals are food!

      Commenter
      Liv
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 14, 2013, 4:14PM

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