Big Soda’s Smoke and Mirrors

Big Soda TacticsNo sooner had my most recent On Nutrition column, “The rise, and potential fall, of Big Soda,” hit The Seattle Times‘ website when I received an email from the American Beverage Association’s communications manager. In case you’re not familiar with the ABA, they are the trade association that represents America’s non-alcoholic beverage industry and is one of the heavy hitters behind efforts to squash any governmental/grassroots/public health initiatives that might reduce soda consumption (soda taxes, portion size limits, marketing to children, etc.). Considering that I have my masters in public health, you can safely assume that I am no fan of the ABA.

Anyway, the ABA kindly asked me to consider updating my article to “include the industry’s perspective.”

My (mental) response to that? “Not bloody likely.” I mean, these people promote sugar water, usually with caffeine and artificial colors added (see the video at the bottom of this post). I’m not anti-sugar, but I am most definitely anti-excess added sugar, and unfortunately in this country there is a lot of excess added sugar. I cringe when I look at the nutrition facts panels on most commercially produced yogurts, a so-called “healthy” food.

To my mind, soda is the biggest, baddest source of added sugar. Once again, it’s sugar water, a product completely devoid of any nutritional value whatsoever. If you are going to have sugar, eat it, don’t drink it, for heaven’s sake. Your body doesn’t register the calories from sugar-sweetened beverages the same way it does calories from food. Soda as a once-in-a-while treat is not likely to be a problem, but the science does show that soda, consumed regularly (like daily or nearly daily) can very much be a problem.

I have a patient who told me she has a soda four times a year. She described it as almost being a ritual. I said “I see no problem with that.” (Ironically, a month or so ago she bought one of her “ritual” sodas and didn’t end up drinking it, because she didn’t want it!)

The ABA also kindly provided me with their official statement on Marion Nestle’s book, Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning):

“The people who make up America’s beverage companies have a long history of engaging in thoughtful discussions and meaningful actions to address the public health issues of overweight and obesity. By bringing stakeholders together and working with leaders like President Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama, we are delivering real and significant results. To support our voluntary efforts, we work hard to bring consumers the fact-based information and the beverage options they need to make the right choices for themselves and their families. And, we are always interested in new opportunities to make more meaningful changes to improve public health. We welcome discussions with anyone from government, academia or non-profits who are willing to partner and make a difference together.”

Of course I forwarded this to my husband immediately (he’s the first person I want to tell things to), and his response was, “What does this even mean? They aren’t even saying anything. Could they be more vague?”

Exactly. Smoke and mirrors, dear readers, smoke and mirrors. Or, as I mentioned in my column (and Nestle goes into at length in her book), they played one of the pages from Big Tobacco’s playbook. The language they use, like “engaging in thoughtful discussions and meaningful actions” and “make the right choices for themselves and their families” sounds all nice and pretty, but it is all fluff, designed to obscure what lies beneath Big Soda’s facade.

When I was interviewing Nestle, one of the things we talked about was that she recently visited World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta. I commented that I opted not to go when I was in Atlanta last fall. “Oh, you should go!” she said. She said that (not surprisingly) it was one big, skillfully executed advertisement, designed to tap into emotions and make you feel happy. She said it made her realize just how dichotomous Coke’s two faces are.

“It’s got this really lovely public face where it’s promoting happiness, physical activity, joy, family, and all these things,” she said. “Behind all that is the evil Mr. Hyde who will do whatever it takes to silence critics.”

[Dr. Nestle is speaking tomorrow (November 3) night at Seattle’s Town Hall, and tickets are still available!]

Here’s some more good reading on Big Soda:

As mentioned above, here’s the video for the “Happiness Stand,” produced by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI):

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