by Marion Nestle
Nov 18 2010

Soft drinks as a solution to childhood malnutrition? I don’t think so.

Here is another one you can’t make up.  An article in Pediatrics, entitled “Malnutrition and the role of the soft drink industry in improving child health in sub-Saharan Africa,” advocates for fortifying soft drinks with micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).

Oddly, it does this after explaining how consumption of soft drinks actually”perpetuates problems of undernutrition in children, pregnant women, and other vulnerable populations in the developing world.”   Why?  Because in “sub-Saharan Africa, for example, distribution of soft drinks and other beverages produced by soft drink companies is extensive, and consumption is high given the extensive poverty in this part of the world.”

The authors justifiably complain about how little attention has been paid to the ways in which soft drink companies perpetuate malnutrition.

But instead of suggesting public health measures to counter the well documented effects of soft drinks on rising rates of obesity or on tooth decay rates among children in developing countries, the authors want soft drink companies to add vitamins and minerals to the drinks.

The Bill Gates foundation recently partnered with Coca-Cola in Uganda to increase production and distribution of mango and passion fruit juice as a way to stimulate production of local mango and passion fruit juice and meet Coca-Cola’s demand for
increased fruit to stimulate sales; however, such a partnership should also ideally involve micronutrient fortification, because Coca-Cola estimates that this partnership will extend sales in coming years. The World Economic Forum recommends fortification of food and beverages by private companies as an approach to reduce malnutrition, to
boost a productive workforce, and to stimulate the global economy.

Translation: Coca-Cola’s economy.

Fortunately, colleagues in Brazil have written a letter in response: “Can the soft drink industry prevent child malnutrition?  No way.”

What the impoverished populations of Africa, Asia and Latin America need, are the means with which to lead a decent life. These include secure local food systems and supplies, access to safe water and adequate sanitation, decently resourced primary health care services, ability to produce and prepare meals from immediate and local resources, universal primary education, and empowered mothers and other caretakers. Substantial reduction of child undernutrition can be achieved in a relatively short period of time with improved income distribution, population and community self-determination, and public investments in public goods such as education, health, social security, water supplies and sanitation.

What they do not need is more Coca-Cola.

Or, for that matter, Pepsi Cola, which tried the same ploy earlier this year (see previous post).

Sales of Coke and Pepsi are declining in the United States.  What better way to protect sales than to foist these products on the poor populations of emerging economies.

We need to be exporting health, self-determination, and democracy, not sugary drinks.

For shame!

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  • Subvert

    “…fortification of food and beverages by private companies as an approach to reduce malnutrition, to boost a productive workforce, and to stimulate the global economy”

    Yes, let’s keep on stimulating and attempting to revive this failing ‘global economy’ beast. I am so tired of hearing fools touting the greatness of being part of the global economy. All things have limits, and those chasing the fallacy of an ever-increasing global economy are pushing those limits to the brink.

  • Pete

    Why does it always seem that the smartest people are also the most evil? Its brilliant business, brilliant PR, brilliant marketing… but its so short sighted.

  • How sad. I doubt it’s those severely malnourished kids who are drinking all the soda anyway.

    Also, I wanted to let you know about our latest blog post and the discussion about fluoridated water and what it does to your teeth. I thought of this since it relates to both dental health and very UNNATURAL substances! I thought you might be interested in checking it out or mentioning it on your blog. Here’s the link:

  • Lizzie Rubens

    This is unbelievable. I can’t believe multinational companies can get away with this crap… as our country gets fatter, we cannot in turn make developing countries pick up poor nutritional habits!!

    I recently completed a challenge that did the exact opposite. Check out – I thought it was kind of an interesting idea. Such a simple way to hydrate and avoid soda!

    What do you think Coke and Pepsi would say about THAT?!

  • Lizzie – sounds like a good idea! I only drink soda maybe once a month anyway, but it sounds like a great incentive for people who are a little more attached to it.

  • Cathy Richards

    Mango production needs to be stimulated? A colleague who was working on farming issues in subsaharan Africa reported that mangoes were the staple of the diet and their work was intended to stimulate production of vegetables and other fruits.

    So Coca Cola wants to exploit the surplus of mangoes (read: the cheap supply of mangoes) in the area to make juice, and putting micronutrients in the juice would make it look like they were trying to help the area rather than exploit it. A huge and steady demand on mangoes would deter the farmers from switching over to more diverse crops, and make them dependent on Coca Cola for future markets. Turning mangoes into juice will add an expense to the people despite a lower quality product than the raw mangoes.

    Go Bill Gates. It’s corporate values all the way down the line despite the pretty “Foundation” optics.

    The one plus: it’s better than Coke.

  • Lisa

    I’m really fed up with Coca-Cola taking over the world and getting as close to a monopoly as they can. If they did make juice out of mangoes they most likely would exploit the mango farmers and essentially keep them in poverty.

    My university has a 10 year contract with Coca Cola where they own 90% of our beverages. Recently, they removed Guayaki Yerba Mate’s, which were made by a couple of our university graduates, it is healthy, it is sustainable, and it is fair trade. Thanks to Coca Cola we no longer have this product on campus. Corporate greed at it’s finest.

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  • Kristin

    Just another example of a real news story that you WISH were an Onion story…

  • Lizzie Rubens

    Hannah – Yeah! I was pretty bad (3-5 sodas a day… yikes) but after 30 days with that challenge, I’m actually more or less completely off of it… and the best part is, no more supporting Coke when they pull off stunts like this!

  • HOW DISGUSTING! What about REAL food? Hmm. I’m really starting to hate the food industry…

  • tom

    wow thats like fortifying lard

  • “Can the soft drink industry prevent child malnutrition?”

    I thought they were the Official Sponsors In Favor of child malnutrition. My mistake.

    Krak no lika the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation…not the first time I’ve seen them do the opposite of what seems good.

  • Jon

    Of course, if they knew anything about nutrition, they’d know the Third World has anything but a sugar deficiency: Carbohydrate sources are the main foodstuff of these countries.

  • emily

    Hi Marion, Did you see the article in NYT today 2-9-11 on vitamins in chewing gum? Is this really legal in the US or did FDA just give up on this? I thought their nutritional guidelines prevent fortification of carbonated beverages and candy in the US… Gum is now what, a dietary supplement?

  • Marion

    @Emily: Vitamins in chewing gum? Shades of the Jelly Bean Rule! The FDA said you could not put vitamins into sugary foods to make them look healthy. The Times article doesn’t say whether this is sugary or sugar-free gum. But I believe the FDA is looking into chewing gum marketing.