by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Soft drinks

Jul 2 2012

Soda taxes and other measures designed to fight obesity

My once-a-month (first Sunday) Q and A column in the San Francisco Chronicle deals with recent city initiatives.

Q:Why do municipalities continue to try to tell us what to eat or drink through taxes (the 1-cent soda tax on the Richmond ballot in November) or outright bans (eliminating super-size soft drinks, proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York)?  Richmond residents could just buy their sodas in neighboring towns, and 1 cent seems hardly enough to influence anyone. New Yorkers could just buy two drinks if they want more. Isn’t this all rather silly?

A: Silly? On the contrary. These are dead-serious attempts to address the health problems caused by obesity through “environmental” change – changing the context in which we make food choices.

By now, health officials are well aware that asking individuals to take responsibility for making their own healthy food choices hasn’t got a prayer of success in the face of a marketing environment that encourages people to eat everywhere, all day long, in very large portions and at relatively low cost.

This is the default food environment, where it’s useless to tell people they need to eat less and expect them to do it. They can’t. Instead, it makes sense to try to change the food environment to make healthy choices the easy choices.

Healthy by design?

Suppose, for example, that all kids’ meals at fast-food restaurants were healthy by design and automatically provided milk or water.

You could still order a soda for your kid, but you would have to ask for it – and pay extra. If you are like most people, you won’t bother. That’s why the default matters.

Cities are trying to change the default. One change may or may not make a difference – we don’t know that yet. But changing the default might well make healthy choices easier in schools, fast-food restaurants and other institutions.

Bloomberg’s proposal in New York, to ban sodas larger than 16 ounces, is one such step. From my standpoint, 16 ounces is generous. It’s two full servings and provides about 50 grams of sugars, 200 calories and 10 percent of daily calories for someone who consumes 2,000 calories a day.

Portion sizes used to be a lot smaller. Decades ago, Coca-Cola advertised 16-ounce bottles as “big” and enough to serve three over ice.

If we could recognize that larger portions have more calories – and act on this knowledge – we might have an easier time maintaining weight. But we can’t, at least not easily.

The Richmond soda tax proposal recognizes that more than half of Richmond schoolchildren are overweight or obese. This percentage is higher than in other areas of Contra Costa County.

Even more striking, city officials estimate that two-thirds of Richmond adolescents consume more than 400 calories a day from soft drinks.

Kids who habitually drink sugary sodas tend to have worse diets, to be fatter and to display more risk factors for chronic diseases than kids who don’t.

This makes sugar-sweetened beverages an obvious target for environmental approaches to obesity prevention. Sugary sodas have calories but no nutrients. They are consumed in large amounts. They are highly correlated with obesity and health risks. They are “liquid candy.”

Sugary drinks should be once-in-a-while treats, not daily fare.

Richmond officials hope that the tax will encourage healthier choices. They deliberately set the proposed tax small so it would not unduly burden low-income residents.

One penny per ounce – 16 cents on a 16-ounce soda – may not be enough to change behavior, but it sends a clear message: It’s less expensive to drink water, and it’s healthier to reduce soda intake.

Funding programs

The Richmond proposal has one other critically important feature. It specifies that soda tax revenue will be used to fund city programs to address and reduce childhood obesity, especially in low-income areas where obesity rates are high.

These experiments are worth national attention. They may well do some good for individuals, and I can’t see how they would cause harm in any way except, perhaps, to the economic interests of soda companies.

Soda companies are taking these initiatives seriously. They are pouring millions of dollars into lobbying and community campaigns against both proposals.

Both have elicited plenty of public discussion, much of it focused on the rights of individuals versus the public health interests of government.

What I like about these initiatives is that they do not infringe on individual rights – people can buy as much soda as they want. The proposals simply try to make the default food environment slightly more conducive to healthy choices.

I’m hoping both proposals go forward. I can’t wait to see how they play out.

Jun 12 2012

More on Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial soda initiative

The controversy continues over Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to limit the size of sodas to 16 ounces in certain places.

On the one hand, we have today’s account in the New York Times of Mayor Bloomberg’s visit to Montefiore in the Bronx, where obesity levels appear intractable:

Critics have described [Mayor Bloomberg’s] proposed soda rule as interfering with a matter of personal choice, calling instead for less intrusive means to address the obesity problem, through education and access to healthy foods. But the Bronx experience helps explain why Mr. Bloomberg and city health officials embraced the aggressive new regulatory tact after years of trying, and failing, to curb obesity through those types of measures.

…In defending his proposal, Mr. Bloomberg said at Montefiore that the ban was not intended to tread on anyone’s rights, and he noted that more than individual liberties were at stake. “We are absolutely committed to doing everything in our power to help you get on track and stay on track to maintain a healthy lifestyle,” he said. “Because this isn’t your crisis alone — it is a crisis for our city and our entire country.”

On the other hand, here’s the June 18 New Yorker–“soda noir.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The New York City Board of Health is meeting today to review the Mayor’s soda proposal.  Stay tuned!

Jun 11 2012

The soda industry strikes back

Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to limit sugary soft drinks to 16 ounces has elicited an industry counter attack as well as much attention to the role of sugary drinks in obesity.

The soda industry established a new organization, “Let’s Clear It Up,” with a website to spin the science.

Soda is a hot topic. And the conversation is full of opinions and myths, but not enough facts. America’s beverage companies created this site to clear a few things up about the products we make. So read on. Learn. And share the clarity.

Myth: The obesity epidemic can be reversed if people stop drinking soda. [I’m not aware that anyone is claiming this.  Bloomberg’s proposal is aimed at making it easier for soda drinkers to reduce calorie intake.]

Fact: Sugar-sweetened beverages account for only 7% of the calories in the average American’s diet, according to government data. [The figure applies to everyone over the age of 2—to those who do and do not drink sodas.  The percentage is much higher for soda drinkers.]

Coca-Cola is using a second strategy: divert attention.  Its full-page ad in Sunday’s New York Times said:

Everything in moderation.  Except fun, try to have lots of that.

Our nation is facing an obesity problem and we’re taking steps to be part of the solution.  By promoting balanced diets and active lifestyles, we can make a positive difference.

By “balanced diets” Coke means varying package sizes.  By “active lifestyles” Coke means partnerships with Boys & Girls Clubs of America and gifts to national parks.  This approach merits its own website: livepositively.com.

And then we have USA Today’s not-to-be-missed interview with Katie Bayne, Coke’s president of sparkling beverages in North America:

Q: Is there any merit to limits being placed on the size of sugary drinks folks can buy?

A: Sugary drinks can be a part of any diet as long as your calories in balance with the calories out. Our responsibility is to provide drink in all the sizes that consumers might need. [Need?]

Q: But critics call soft drinks “empty” calories.

A: A calorie is a calorie. What our drinks offer is hydration. That’s essential to the human body. We offer great taste and benefits whether it’s an uplift or carbohydrates or energy. We don’t believe in empty calories. We believe in hydration. [Water, anyone?]

Finally, there’s the Washington Post interview with Todd Putman, a former Coke marketing executive now in recovery.

Putman, whose positions at Coca-Cola included U.S. head of marketing for carbonated drinks, said in the interview that among his achievements was tailoring the company’s national advertising campaigns to specific groups. The approach helped Coca-Cola intensify marketing to target audiences such as African Americans and Hispanics.

“It was just a fact that Hispanics and African Americans have higher per capita consumption of sugar-based soft drinks than white Americans,” he said. “We knew that if we got more products into those environments those segments would drink more.”

Is the soda industry behind the Center for Consumer Freedom’s Nanny Bloomberg ad?  I’ve yet to hear denials.

Jun 7 2012

Are food companies part of the solution to obesity?

The June 2012 e-mailed newsletter from the International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO) quotes from a speech by IASO’s Tim Lobstein at the recent Nordic Nutrition Conference. 

Dr Lobstein suggests that claims by large food companies to be an essential part of the solution  to obesity should be challenged.

These companies do not manufacture essential food items….They produce branded, mass-produced, processed snacks and beverages which are not necessary in a healthy diet.

Such companies should not be claiming a right to be included in policy decisions, and should not be displacing producers of healthier foods, such as fruit and vegetable growers, who are a legitimate part of the solution.

Think of that the next time you see ads from the American Beverage Association?

Jun 2 2012

Is this an American Beverage Association ad in disguise?

If the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) is placing ads attacking Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to limit the size of soft drinks to 16 ounces (see yesterday’s post), he must have done something right.

CCF, as I have explained previously, is used as an attack dog by the National Restaurant Association and other food and beverage organizations to stave off criticism of their contributions to obesity, poor health, and environmental degradation.

It gets paid to use tactics that food and beverage companies are afraid to do on their own because they might offend customers or stockholders.  Its funders get to hide behind these tactics.

CCF does not disclose its contributors.  Could the American Beverage Association have paid CCF to do this ad?

Coke and Pepsi are prominent members of the Beverage Association.  If so, they are now on record in overt opposition to public health efforts.

I welcome statements from the American Beverage Association and its members to the contrary.

Jun 1 2012

Mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban proposal hits the wall

Yesterday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a ban on sales of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces in restaurants, delis, sports arenas, and movie theaters.

The reactions have been ferocious, and not only from the soda industry, which placed this ad in today’s Times.

The New York Times also weighed in with an editorial arguing that the mayor has now gone too far and should be sticking to educational strategies.

Alas.  If only educational strategies worked.  But they do not.

We know this from what it took to discourage people from smoking cigarettes.  We also know this from research on eating behavior.  This shows that it doesn’t take much to get people to eat too much.

Just barrage us with advertising, put food within arm’s reach, make food available 24/7, make it cheap, and serve it in enormous portions.

Faced with this kind of food environment, education doesn’t stand a chance.

That’s the point the Mayor’s proposal is trying to address, however clumsily.  After all, a 16-ounce soda is two servings.

Sugary drinks—especially large ones—make sense as a target for a portion size intervention.

  • They have calories but no nutrients (“liquid candy”).
  • The larger the serving size, the more calories they contain.
  • They are widely consumed, often to the extent of hundreds and sometimes thousands of calories a day.
  • Research links them to obesity (people who habitually consume sugary drinks tend to have worse diets and weigh more than those who don’t).
  • People tend to drink the amount that is in the container.

The sugary drink industries have much to answer for their role in obesity promotion.

  • They put billions of dollars into advertising, much of it directed to children and minority groups.
  • They lobby Congress and federal agencies to prevent laws and regulations that might affect sales.
  • They co-opt health organizations to neutralize criticism (hence: the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ advice to focus on “education and moderation”)
  • They attack public health professionals who advise “don’t drink your calories.”
  • They attack the science and make it appear confusing (see the above ad which does not mention studies that show otherwise).
  • They price drinks to favor the largest size servings; an 8-ounce soft drink costs much more per ounce than a 2-liter bottle.

If the Beverage Association really wanted to help Americans eat more healthfully, it could change all of those practices.

The Mayor is committed to improving the health of New Yorkers and is trying to figure out ways to do that.

Beverage companies are interested in one thing and one thing only: the financial health of beverage companies.  And they have convinced many Americans that the financial health of beverage companies trumps public health.

Education?  I’m for it if it’s focused on educating the public how beverage companies really operate.

Addition: The New York City Health Department has been collecting endorsements from public officials and health advocates and is posting them online. I’m in good company.

Apr 23 2012

Gatorade: the new health food?

On April 20, I received a letter from a Gatorade PR person commenting on one of my posts reposted at the Atlantic Health/Food section.

After reading the letter, I searched my posts for references to Gatorade but can’t find anything specific other than my reporting the more than $100 million a year Pepsi spends to advertise this product.

So I’m guessing the letter must be referring to my comments about sports drinks in general:

Hi Marion –

I recently read your article in The Atlantic and would like to make sure you have the most current information. Your article criticizes sports drinks, advising against them because the sugars and carbs will make you fat. It also discusses the main sweetener in most sports drinks is high fructose corn syrup.

I would like to point out the carbohydrates and calories are functional in Gatorade, a sports drink, and are meant to provide fuel specifically for athletes.

The ingredients in Gatorade are backed by years of scientific research that support the need for carbohydrate sugars for fuel during training or competition and we only recommend Gatorade during the active occasion.

Also, high fructose corn syrup is not an ingredient in any Gatorade products.

For those looking for a lower-calorie sports beverage, Gatorade offers G2, which delivers the same amount of electrolytes as original Gatorade but with half the calories. Gatorade also recently introduced G Series FIT 02 Perform, which is designed for a fitness athlete and has 10 calories per 8oz serving.

Please let me know if you have any questions or need any additional information.

Best,

Katie Montiel, Gatorade Communications

I’m always happy to hear from interested readers.

And aren’t you glad to know that sugar is a functional (translation: “good-for-you”) ingredient in Gatorade?

Feb 20 2012

Annals of food marketing: Are Dr. Pepper ads sexist?

I am indebted to FoodNavigator.com for bringing the recent ads for Dr Pepper Snapple’s diet—oops, low-calorie—Dr Pepper Ten to my attention.

This drink has only 10 calories but is aimed clearly at men who, the ads assume, are fine about low-calorie sodas but squirm at the idea that they might be seen drinking diet sodas.

In case you haven’t been tracking these things, Coke has both bases covered: Diet Coke appeals to women and Coke Zero appeals to men.

FoodNavigator’s Caroline Scott-Thomas is devastating in her critique of this strategy.  The “it’s not for women” campaign excludes half the market.

Not only that, she says, but the ad is:

patronizing to both men and women in its reinforcement of what I had (perhaps naively) hoped were outdated stereotypes….It deliberately picks at the edges of our comfort zones.  Is it OK to be sexist if it’s done with irony?…Provocation is a blunt instrument.  It may prove effective for sales—perhaps as effective as sexually explicit marketing—but it is still crude and obtuse.”

Finally, she asks: “Would this ad be offensive if it involved a bunch of redneck clichés and proclaimed ‘it’s not for blacks’?  You bet it would.”

In this era of food overabundance, marketers will do anything—anything—to sell products.  Water, anyone?

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