by Marion Nestle
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:

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.

  • 2 years ago marketing guru Seth Godin in his blog:

    “If I worked at Pepsi, I’d be actively lobbying for the obesity sweet soda tax (a penny an ounce) being proposed in New York. Instead, in a no-surprise knee jerk reaction, almost everyone in the industry is lobbying like crazy to stop it. This is dumb marketing.”

    This is dumb marketing, says the guru. But why marketing exec’s at Big Cola do not believe in him? Short term incentives?

  • The fact that this proposal is being called a “ban” by critics, when it is no such thing, speaks volumnes.
    From the level of hysteria being whipped up, one might think that reasonable portion sizes of non nutritive beverages spelled the downfall of democracy as we know it. And as for that “nanny state” nonsense, well…

  • The soda industry can continue their battle, however, there is one simple truth …

    People who are living a healthy lifestyle, most definitely, have taken soda (sugared and calorie-free) out of their lifestyle.

    Ken Leebow

  • Cathy Richards

    I’ve been loving the Jon Stewart jabs at the ban. He seems to be purposely jabbing the nanny state with an overriding mockery of the ridiculousness of people wanting to have that huge serving size protected as a right. Still trying to figure out which side he leans to on this topic! So far he seems to be straddling the fence. In a very funny way.

  • Jill

    According to the CDC in the years 2005 – 2008 half the population did not consume sugary beverages.
    That means the average person who consumes these beverages would consume about 14% of kilocalories (Calories) from sugary beverages not 7% of kcals.

    That is quite high from only one sugary source. It leaves no room for ice cream, cookies or …

  • Steve

    [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.]

    Nothing about this is to make something ‘easier’. Its a slight twisting of the arms of those who partake of these large sugary beverages. And in the end its biggest success will be on Bloomberg’s campaign trail.

    Lets just keep trumpeting calories in vs. out and ignoring the hormonal impact of our food choices and no change in the obesity epidemic will occur, at least no positive change.

  • mae

    I agree with the analysis that a ban on huge portions of sweetened soda would be regulation not of _consumers_ per se, but of sellers who are manipulating them to over-consume. I favor such a ban.

    However, every discussion of the actual calorie count of fountain drinks assumes that these portions have the same number of calories per ounce as sodas from a can or bottle; that is, they disregard the ice that comes in those 16, 32, or 64 ounce cups of soda.

    Admittedly the amount of ice can vary and isn’t regulated. Also, some fast-food outlets allow consumers to serve themselves, meaning no consistent way to judge at all. However, this does mean that the calorie content isn’t quite as high, on average, as the proponents of the new regulation claim. I suspect that fountain beverages served by a server probably are around half ice by volume, meaning a 32 ounce portion in a cup with ice is equal calorically to a 16 ounce bottle of the same beverage.

  • Janknitz

    Hmmm . . .

    “A calorie is a calorie” and “sugar and starchy carbohydrates can be part of a balanced diet.”

    Where have we heard THOSE before????

  • This is why is has been so frustrating to see the pushback from the nutrition community against Lustig’s message that the problem with sugar is not that it represents “empty calories” but rather, for susceptible individuals, something much more insidious. “Empty calories” is not a powerful public health message and is easily co-opted by industry. “Empty calories” may explain a little weight gain, but it doesn’t explain diabetes, cancer or heart disease.

  • I would think Coke being behind the CFC ad is evident. It’s using misleading tactics elsewhere.

  • Joe

    Is it a misleading tactic to say that everyone who drinks a beverage with sugar is unhealthy? There is a strong tendancy here at make this a black/white all or nothing discussion and it isn’t.

    It simply cannot be true that everyone who drinks a coke is obese and unhealthy. In fact I know many who drink these drinks and are fine. The first person to point this out was one of my nutrition professors in college who drank a regular Coke everyday.

    While I do appreciate the passion for the health of others demostrated here I can’t help but detect some amount of contempt for the choices they make. Where is the willingness to let people do with their own bodies what they choose?

  • Anthro

    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?]

    And all that salt (check the label) just makes you more thirsty! Hmmmmm….

  • It’s absolutely ludicrous for the soda industry to use the moderation argument, when that is exactly what Bloomberg is doing. There’s nothing moderate about a 16oz soda, and those will still be available.

  • Anthro

    “Empty calories” may explain a little weight gain, but it doesn’t explain diabetes, cancer or heart disease.


    These diseases result primarily from obesity, which in turn results from too many empty calories. The amount of empty calories an individual can tolerate will vary, of course, but for people who tend to gain easily, soda is a pretty easy thing to not bother with.

  • @Anthro – Those diseases result primarily from metabolic syndrome – which also expresses as obesity. Obesity correlates with those diseases, it is not the underlying derangement, insulin resistance is. Obesity is another manifestation of metabolic syndrome along with heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and Alzheimer’s. When we talk about the “Obesity Epidemic” what we are really talking about is the “Metabolic Syndrome Epidemic”, but obesity is more salient than than the other conditions, so it has grabbed center stage which unfortunate because its just one symptom of the real problem and leads to confusion about what needs to be done because not all obesity is caused by metabolic syndrome. (and not everyone with metabolic syndrome is obese).

    What needs to done from a public health perspective is clearer and the problem less intractable when its framed around Metabolic Syndrome rather than Obesity.

  • Mambisa

    The Center for Consumer Freedom is behind the ad. It’s a not-for-profit front group for fast food, tobacco and agricultural groups. It was started with $600,000 from Philip Morris, but doesn’t divulge its funders. See

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