by Marion Nestle
May 11 2011

Sugary drinks vs. obesity: power politics in action

It used to be that the “soda wars” referred to Coke vs. Pepsi.  No more.  Today’s soda wars are fought on the health front, as more and more evidence links sugary drinks to obesity and other health problems.

The current issue of the New Yorker has an article by John Seabrook (in which I am briefly quoted) about Pepsi’s attempt to “health up” its snacks and drinks.

Seabrook’s article, “Snacks for a fat planet,” describes the extraordinary amount of money and effort Pepsi is spending to try to tweak its products to make them seem healthier.  His article doesn’t exactly give Pepsi a pass (as some of my readers have complained), but it does not really come to grips with how sugary drinks and snacks affect health or how Pepsi is marketing its products in developing countries.

That, no doubt, is why Pepsi has sent out a press release to reports that enclosed the complete article and suggested that reporters might be “interested in the company’s focus on its innovative approach to:”

  • Reduce salt, fat and sugar across the portfolio – the New Yorker feature explains PepsiCo’s effort to re-shape natural salt so that it has more surface area, and, in turn, is perceived as “saltier” on the tongue – meaning they can maintain all the salty flavor in Lay’s but reduce overall sodium content
  • Scale more drinks and snacks made with whole grains, fruit, vegetables and dairy to new markets – e.g. bringing vegetable-based gazpacho (perhaps with an edible whole grain spoon) to the U.S.
  • Test new ingredients brought back from “treks” around the world – e.g. using a state-of-the-art robot in PepsiCo’s new Hawthorne, NY research lab to test botanicals and other natural ingredients from near and far – e.g. even secluded villages in the far East – to determine their impact on taste and viability for use in PepsiCo snacks and drinks (Do they intensify sweetness? Can they be a substitute for sugar? Do they have a particular healthful function?)

Score this one as a win for Pepsi.

Along with such pledges, Pepsi is aggressively marketing sodas to teenagers.  The San Francisco Chronicle reports on Pepsi’s new “social marketing” vending machines.

At a trade show in Chicago this week, PepsiCo rolled out a prototype interactive soda machine that lets you send a drink as a gift to a friend or a random stranger.

“Our vision is to use innovative technology to empower consumers and create new ways for them to engage with our brands, their social networks and each other at the point of purchase,” Mikel Durham, PepsiCo Foodservice’s chief innovation officer, said in a press release.

“Social Vending extends our consumers’ social networks beyond the confines of their own devices and transforms a static, transaction-oriented experience into something fun and exciting they’ll want to return to, again and again.”

But these kinds of marketing pushes are not confined to Pepsi.   Advertising Age reports that Joe Tripodi, Coke’s chief marketing officer of Coca-Cola explains the company’s growth strategy: focus on teenagers:

The company sees huge opportunities to grow colas, and the business as a whole, around the world in the next decade. Teen recruitment will be particularly important, as the company follows demographic trends.

“There was a time [a decade ago] when we walked away from teen recruitment and probably lost a generation of drinkers,” Mr. Tripodi said. “Parts of the world lost confidence in cola as the engine of growth. We’ve gotten that back in a big way. …When you look at the massive opportunity in so many huge countries in the world, that’s what energizes us and why we believe cola is still at its very early stages.”

And then there are partnership strategies. The latest is Sonic drive-ins’ campaign for Limeades for Learning. The campaign encourages eaters to vote for school projects like those that support physical activity.  Sonic promises to fund the projects with the most votes. The Limeades, by the way, are 620 calories (for a medium) or 950 calories (for a large).

Finally, for now, the Boston Globe reports that most Massachusetts voters support a sales tax on sodas if the money is used for some useful purpose.  But:

The American Beverage Association has been aggressively fighting taxes on soda, as cities and states across the country look for new tools to counter an obesity epidemic and raise revenue amid squeezed budgets. It has spent millions fighting initiatives that impose product-specific excise taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and has been successful in nearly every attempt.

Expect more such public relations efforts superimposed on fundamental marketing techniques aimed at kids and fighting back on taxes and other attempts to limit soda intake.




How does this comport with the spanking new advertising guidelines to children or any of the previous pledges? Is sending a soda to a friend an activity or marketing? Or both?




  • In my “extremist” view, all cola products should be eliminated for having no nutritional value whatsoever. companies contributing to obesity should be levied with higher tax rates than other more sustainable and health-promoting companies.

    they’re killing us, and they don’t give a damn because their pockets keep getting fatter while our bodies do the same.

  • Suzanne

    I second your public-health friendly view, Rick! Bravo!

  • lori

    we just had a holiday in Totos Santoes Baja California, where the local population has seen skyrocketing increase in diabetes since coca cola was introduced. The highway between Cabo San Lucas and Todos literly has thousands if not millions of empty bottles impaled on the rebar.

  • John Seabrook

    Interesting to see PepsiCo “social listening” in action here:!/pepsico

  • Matt

    Interesting stuff. The flip side to companies that only want to sell beverages regardless of what they are is that if somehow a healthier drink at similar profits takes off, they’ll be more than happy to sell that instead. Pepsi’s “social vending” machines could work well even in schools that ban sugary drinks for things like juices or tea. (How long before Pepsi or Coke buys majorly into a dairy segment, btw? They already have the infrastructure to transport cold individual beverage containers to vending machines, and dairy may help them in some segments.)

    Before you go all “ban the soft drinks,” keep in mind that people want portable, cold, refreshing beverages. Not every place has great-tasting tap water, and anyway you can’t reduce demand by reducing supply (ask the drug warriors). So given that people want a can or bottle of something to take with them, and that they can get at lots of locations, what should be in those machines? Fruit juices can be very sugary and calorie-dense even if 100% juice; dairy can have too much fat (and chocolate milk has its own problems), coffee and tea aren’t appropriate for all kids either, and bottled water may be the least offensive despite the container waste problem.

    So if people are gonna buy drinks, what drinks should they buy?

  • @Matt

    Thank you for saying that!

    I’m all for having healthier options, but what exactly would you have Pepsi and Coke do? Close up their doors because sodas aren’t the picture of health? Good luck with that one.

    While we’re at it, potato chips, cookies, candy bars, lollipops, etc, should all cease to be created because they’re “empty” calories.

    Back in my college days, I had a “Computers and Technology” class that centered around the 90’s movie Demolition Man. Yes, as a movie, it wasn’t anything special. But the concepts it proposed as the “future” were interesting.

    Everything that was “bad” for you was illegal, even salt.

    I suggest you watch the movie. If you can get past the mediocre plot, it’ll make you think.

  • Brandon

    I’m going to bring the together the newer tobacco post and this one to make my comment. Although he overdoes it, Doc makes a good point in the comments for tobacco: “The fight against tobacco was against all tobacco, not just against affordable tobacco in favor of expensive cuban cigars and trendy exotic cigarettes…”

    What if soda companies make their soda nutrient profile look like fat free milk? 12g sugar, 8g protein, 30% calcium, etc. Will it be ok then?

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  • Michael

    To burn off the 620 Calories in the medium Sonic drive-ins limeade with the physical activity they are pushing as the solution, you’d have to power-walk or play soccer for over an hour and a half, or jog or do aerobics for over half an hour.

    Do you want a burger with that? Fries …?

  • Michael

    Correction: that’s about an hour and twenty minutes of jogging or soccer.

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  • Thousands of studies have shown and proven without any doubt that losing body fat will improve and lengthen your life. Knowing the dangers of being overweight is a tremendous motivator to not only lose fat, but to keep it off.

  • Michael

    @Chris, @Matt:

    Perfectly reasonable questions — but with fairly straightforward answers: water; seltzer; low-fat, unsweetened milk; diet soda.

    @Brandon: “What if soda companies make their soda nutrient profile look like fat free milk? 12g sugar, 8g protein, 30% calcium, etc. Will it be ok then?” Probably not. The controlled trials on dietary supplements seem to indicate that we’re very poor at guessing which individual nutrients in whole foods are responsible for their health benefits. We need to bring up kids used to consuming whole foods, not simulacra.

  • isbel

    i think it is unethical how companies rather sell and sell products that are harmful to the public. Indeed, cola has absolutely no nutriton value watsoever and should be elimnated. Or i think the price should be increased, so people will think twice about buyin the product.