Dr. Marion Nestle’s most recent book Soda Politics delves into the dark world of the soda industry: its political power and the way it has used advertising and lobbying to become the major source of the average American’s consumption (often unwitting) of added sugar calories. It’s a shocking tale, but not too surprising given the recent alarms that Nestle and others have raised about the influence that the makers of sugar-sweetened beverages have over our citizenry’s dietary habits. Recent examples in the news give us insight into the importance of Dr. Nestle’s latest work.
Dr. James Hamblin writes in the Atlantic about a lecture at NYU entitled “Why We Eat What We Eat”—insights from a panel including Dr. Nestle and Dr. Gordon Shepherd, a neurobiologist at Yale. His interpretation of the whole event boiled down to the concept of choice, and how, in our current food system, we don’t really have a choice when it comes to what we eat. Nestle described, as she does in her new book, the ways in which government subsidies ignore fruits and vegetables yet pump up sugar and corn production (to be made into corn syrup among other things). She also launched into the billions of dollars that the food industry spends each year trying to convince us, on an emotional level, to purchase unhealthy foods while eschewing the obvious fact that most of the stuff in the supermarket is full of added sugar. (By the way, if you haven’t seen this CNN photo essay of sugary beverage to junk food equivalencies, please check it out; it’s pretty staggering).
Hamblin explains that Dr. Shepherd’s answer to the question implicit in the title of the lecture not only addressed the sugar industry, but also the biology of taste. Added sugar, research shows, actually covers up the true taste of food and because very few Americans actually experience most food in its fresh, original state, we are tricked into believing that sugary food is “tasty” food. Hamblin quotes Shepherd explaining why this is problematic:
‘Very few of us ever taste real, flavorful food,’ Shepherd said, disconcerted. He speaks with the empiricism of a neurobiologist rather than the elitism of a foodie, so it’s not off-putting. ‘Unless you go to a market in the summer and find produce that was grown locally and not flown in from Chile, you have never tasted things at their full flavor.’ And he means it as a potentially consequential public-health issue. If people had easy access to that kind of flavor, how many people might choose to eat healthier foods and then, you know, become healthy?”
Sobering, yes? So, to create a healthier America all we need to do is fight giant food corporations, change our national agricultural policy and make sure that everyone has unfettered access to fresh fruits and veggies. Easy? Again we run into the tension of working towards positive change for the health of America: on the one hand, our situation is pretty grim, yet on the other hand there is hope.
In Soda Politics Nestle gives her recommendations for changing the sugar problem we have in the U.S. These include, among other things:
• smaller portions
• taxing sugary drinks
• excluding soda from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
Echoing the hopeful message that something can be done, a recent press release from Center for Science in the Public Interest showed that even Coca-Cola is not immune to the law when it comes to labeling their beverages. Six years after CSPI initially filed a class action lawsuit against the health claims ballyhooed by the company’s Vitaminwater brand (e.g. “support[s] optimal metabolic function with antioxidants that may reduce the risk of chronic diseases,”) the company has filed a resolution in which it will take the health messages out of its branding and will include the phrase “with sweeteners” on the label. This is a nice step in the right direction of starting to give consumers the honesty, insights and choices that Hamblin describes as so lacking.
There’s still more that we can do! Currently a bill in Congress aims to put an excise tax on sugary beverages nationwide. To read more about just how important this bill could be, check out our informational page. Also, please join us in our effort to get this bill to the House floor by sending a letter to your Representative. Click here and join our efforts!
The Money Spent Selling Sugar to Americans Is Staggering via the Atlantic
Label Improvements Resolve Vitaminwater Litigation via CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest