A Soda Promise too Sweet to be True?


The campaign for the pro soda tax vote this November continues in Berkeley and San Francisco with the Soda Series, a program of conversations around sugar sweetened beverages which includes discussion titles such as “Is Soda the New Tobacco” and “Big Soda and the Environment” that clearly summarize our general feelings about sugary beverages.

They are no good! In general this is a pretty well accepted notion. In fact, it’s a zeitgeist becoming more and more commonplace such that three big soda giants, Pepsico, Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper all pledged recently at the Clinton Global Health initiative to cut the sugar in their beverages by 20% over the next 10 years. From vending machines to soda fountains to grocery stores, Stephanie Strom of the New York Times explains the industry outlook:

It also will spill into grocery stores in end-of-aisle promotions and other marketing. “We’ll use the most critical levers we have at our disposal, and the focus really will be on transforming the beverage landscape in the U.S. over the next 10 years,” said Susan Neely, chief executive of the American Beverage Association, the industry trade group.”

Is this a new leaf for the sugary beverage industry—who has made a fortune on corn syrup and flavoring—often criticized for hawking abhorrent amounts of calories to youngsters in tricky ways, as one recent Center for Science in the Public Interest campaign pointed out? Marion Nestle thinks not. In fact, she writes in a recent blog post, as more and more people are learning about and accepting the blatant ill effects of sugary drinks, the market is changing and these big soda folks are simply jumping on the band wagon to keep up their sales,

Americans want healthier drinks and are switching to bottled water, sports drinks, and vitamin-fortified drinks—although not nearly at replacement levels. The soda industry has to find ways to sell more products. It also has to find ways to head off regulation. Hence: the promises.”

To deal with sales shortfalls, the leading soft-drink brands, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, have expanded their marketing overseas. They have committed to invest billions to make and promote their products in Latin America as well as in the hugely populated countries of Asia and Africa where soda consumption is still very low.”

It’s nice to know that sound science and public opinion might be moving these sugar slingers in a better direction, but Nestle is clearly cautioning us to not confuse marketing tactics with new found social benevolence. She is quick to point out that the American Beverage Association is also on the forefront of opposing the Berkeley and San Francisco ballot initiatives just as they did Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s soda laws in New York. Nestle feels that the beverage industry has a long way to go,

If the soda industry really wants to help prevent obesity, it needs to change its current practices. It should stop fighting tax and size initiatives, stop opposing warning labels on sugary drinks, stop lobbying against restrictions on sodas in schools, stop using sports and music celebrities to sell products to children, stop targeting marketing to African-American and Hispanic young people, and stop funding research studies designed to give sodas a clean bill of health.”

We can’t help but agree with Nestle’s cynicism, but we also see the soda industry’s pledge as a reminder that science (and common sense) along with smart advocacy can sway corporate entities to do the right thing.


PHOTO: Courtesy San Francisco Magazine


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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