A mother-of-eight died from heart problems after guzzling up to 10 litres of Coca Cola every day for years, a coroner has concluded.
Invercargill mum Natasha Harris, 31, died in her home after suffering a cardiac arrhythmia, likely brought on by a soft-drink habit described by her family as "an addiction", the coroner's report stated.
Her Coke drinking - estimated by coroner David Crerar to be between six litres and 10 litres every day - had caused her to have several teeth removed after they became rotten, and at least one of her children to be born without enamel on their teeth.
Her long-term partner, Christopher Hodgkinson, estimated Natasha consumed four 2.25 litre bottles of Coke a day. She was said to drink no other beverage than Coke, and to display withdrawal symptoms if she went without.
On February 25, 2010, emergency services were called to their Glengarry home after Natasha called out for help and appeared to be struggling to breathe. Ambulance staff were unable to resuscitate her on arrival.
A post-mortem examination showed Natasha had an enlarged liver, and deposits of fat within the liver, which pathologist Dr Dan Mornin attributed to the consumption of "excessive amounts of sugar".
She also appeared to suffer from hypokalemia, or low potassium levels in her blood, which could be related to drinking large quantities of Coke, he said.
Coroner Crerar also calculated that drinking 10 litres of Coke per day would amount to 970mg of caffeine and more than 1kg of sugar every day.
Unhealthy caffeine levels
More than 500mg of caffeine per day is considered unhealthy. One litre of Coke contains 97mg of caffeine and 108g of sugar (116% of an adult's recommended daily intake of sugar).
Mornin refers to Natasha's low potassium levels and high caffeine intake as attributing causes for the arrhythmia which killed her.
The symptoms Natasha had complained of in the months before her death - describing nausea, vomiting and a racing heart-beat - were indicative of someone who consumes high doses of caffeine.
"I find that, when all the available evidence in considered, were it not for the consumption of very large quantities of Coke by Natasha Harris, it is unlikely that she would have died when she died and how she died," coroner Crerar said in his report, released today.
"Natasha Harris died of cardiac arrhythmia. On the balance of probabilities it is more likely than not that the drinking of very large quantities of Coke was a substantial factor that contributed to the development of metabolic imbalances, which gave rise to the arrhythmia."
However, Crerar made clear that "Coca Cola cannot be held responsible for the health of consumers who drink unhealthy quantities of the product".
He also criticised Natasha for her not heeding the dietary information contained in labels on bottles of Coke, noting that Natasha and her partner Christopher believed that because there was no health warning on the bottle that it was safe to drink in any quantity.
"Natasha Harris knew, or ought to have known and recognised, the health hazard of her chosen diet and lifestyle," he said in his report.
"The fact she had her teeth extracted several years before her death because of what her family believed was Coke induced tooth decay, and the fact that one or more of her children were born without enamel on their teeth, should have been treated by her, and by her family, as a warning."
He also criticised Natasha's avoidance of consulting a doctor despite being in clear ill-health, adding that blood tests would have identified what was wrong with her.
Recommendation over warnings
Crerar said a copy of his findings will be sent to the Ministry of Health, with a recommendation that it considers bolstering warnings on carbonated beverages to "give sufficient protection to consumers" and ensure potential dangers are "more clearly emphasised".
He also suggested Coca Cola "give consideration" to the amount of caffeine in its drinks, and the introduction of appropriate warnings on its products.
However, Coca Cola has disputed the findings, suggesting other factors which could have been responsible for causing Natasha's low potassium levels and fatty liver, such as undiagnosed diabetes and anaemia. But these were dismissed by Mornin and a second clinical expert brought in to review the findings.
"The expressed view of Dr Mornin remains that a combination of factors, including excessive caffeine intake, persistent vomiting and poor nutrition led to electrolyte disturbance, in particular hypokalemia, which triggered the arrhythmia," said Crerar.
The soft-drinks company has issued a statement to ONE News saying it is "disappointed" by the coroner's decision, saying he acknowledged he could not be certain what caused Natasha's arrhythmia.
"We are disappointed that the coroner has chosen to focus on the combination of Ms Harris' excessive consumption of Coca Cola, together with other health and lifestyle factors, as the probable cause of her death," the company said.
"This is contrary to the evidence that showed the experts could not agree on the most likely cause."