About eight years ago, faced with dwindling sales of Coke, Sprite, Barq’s Root Beer, and other candied and generally carbonated beverages in the Coca-Cola Company’s vast product line, Chris Dennis, a director of product management, retreated to a basement with a small team of engineers and related personnel to come up with the next big Real Thing. The team considered itself an edgy start-up operation within the larger parental whale, Dennis has said, able to “move fast” and “fail fast” without “the traditional red tape,” which at Coca-Cola must be very red indeed.
The end result of that basement brainstorming was Coca-Cola Freestyle, a soft drink–dispensing device billed by the company as “revolutionary” and the “fountain of the future” and now found in some 33,000 locations worldwide. Each unit is about the size of a standard vending machine but looks much jazzier, its cabinetry styled by Pininfarina, the same Italian firm that designs Alfa Romeos and Ferraris. By pressing colorful icons on a large touch screen, customers can choose from more than 170 different beverages and flavors, mixing and matching ingredients as their whimsy sees fit: I’ll have a kiwi-lime decaffeinated Coke with a splash of Seagram’s ginger ale, please.
Of particular, paradoxical note, the mechanism that permits Freestyle’s finely calibrated dispensation of various soda syrups and water is an adaptation of a technology developed for medical micropumps, to deliver just the right dose of lifesaving drugs. Micropumps are used in the treatment of cancer, chronic pain, and especially diabetes—an illness linked, in its Type 2 format, to the obesity that unlimited consumption of sugar-logged beverages can bring.
As it happens, neither Freestyle fountains nor personalized soda bottles nor mini-cans nor any other pop-up novelty act seems able to reverse a long-term slide in soda drinking, a trend that The New York Times called “the single largest change in the American diet” in recent history. Since the mid-1990s, sales of full-calorie soft drinks in the United States have plunged by more than 25 percent. The numbers for diet sodas are no better, with sales down almost 20 percent in the past five years—a likely reflection of worries about artificial sweeteners. Bottled water is expected to surpass sweetened soda as the country’s number-one packaged beverage by 2017. Public health surveys also indicate that obesity rates in the US, after years of rising relentlessly, lately have plateaued among adults and school-age children and have even begun to fall in younger children. There’s no direct evidence tying a disenchantment with soda to improvements in the national fat index—after all, sales of sweetened breakfast cereals, cupcakes, and packaged white bread have fallen too, if by smaller amounts. Correlation is not causation. Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore that the per capita purchase of fizzy soft drinks today is as low as it was back in 1986—which is when the rates of severe obesity began to soar.
Why has the public turned so measurably against soda? Effective messaging, for one: health advocates have long denounced soda and related “sugary drinks” as a particularly noxious example of junk food, empty calories that are gulped down quickly and inattentively, often just to lubricate the esophageal passage of other high-calorie snacks. For another, giving up sugared soft drinks is a clear and narrowly defined goal, and in the end not much of a sacrifice. Soda offers no beery buzz, no satisfying crunch. Who needs it?
Yet any success the anti-soda camp can claim has come in the teeth of extreme, unwavering, and, it must be said, unsurprising resistance from what Marion Nestle and her public health colleagues call Big Soda, to evoke parallels with that more familiar corporate black hat, Big Tobacco. Big Soda is not a formal organization, of course, but an alliance of financial stakeholders afloat on the liquid gold of the carbonated beverage, heretofore one of the most profitable products ever invented. The major players include Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, the world’s two largest makers and purveyors of nonalcoholic beverages, which together generate annual revenues in excess of $100 billion; powerful trade groups like the American Beverage Association and the Grocery Manufacturers Association; and an assortment of bottlers, distributors, trucking companies and unions, restaurant chains, and the like.
In Soda Politics, Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at NYU, presents the elaborate lengths to which Big Soda will go to keep their products in view and available. “I am awestruck by how well soda companies manage these tasks,” she writes.
No community group is too inconsequential to receive a grant from the Coke or Pepsi corporate foundations. No city contemplating a soda tax is too small or too poor to be the target of a massive and lavishly funded counteroffensive. No issue that might affect marketing is too trivial to be ignored by industry lobbyists.
Coke and Pepsi products and advertisements are so ubiquitous they’re like parked cars or gray squirrels, barely impinging on the conscious mind.
Start paying attention, and the reach is startling. You’ll find soda vending machines or soda cooler cabinets in virtually every setting where the flow of human traffic might slow down just long enough to insert cash or credit card: convenience stores, gas stations, drugstores, office lobbies, office supply stores, theaters, hospital lounges, highway rest stops, shopping malls, airports, and on every floor of thousands of hotels, right next to the ice machine. “At least since the 1920s, Coca-Cola’s explicit goal has been to ensure that its products are always ‘within arm’s reach of desire,’” Nestle writes, citing Mark Pendergrast’s history of the Coca-Cola Company. Company representatives work closely with soda retailers to ensure that product displays are in full view the moment a customer walks in the door. Don’t forget the colorful signs and banners! One study of nearly three thousand neighborhood stores in Philadelphia found that two thirds displayed ads for soft drinks.
The two major soda companies spend nearly half a billion dollars annually just to advertise their cola products, and the ad campaigns are usually brilliant, and elastic. For example, Coke began featuring an anthropomorphized polar bear as a mascot nearly a century ago—who better to promote the refreshing zest of an ice-cold beverage than a jaunty white bear on ice? More recently, as the real-life animal has become associated with global warming, melting glaciers, and drowning polar bear cubs, Coca-Cola has modified its message to present itself as the bear’s best friend and protector. In 2011, under the auspices of the World Wildlife Fund, the company started a conservation campaign called “Arctic Home,” offering limited-edition Arctic Home soda cans, soliciting public donations, and pledging $2 million of its own funds over five years—a decidedly modest sum that critics derided.
Nevertheless, Coke and Pepsi’s history of catchy jingles, ennobling slogans, and lavishly produced advertisements has helped purchase the companies large reservoirs of public goodwill: more than 95 million people “like” Coca-Cola’s Facebook page, while 34 million Facebook users are friends of Pepsi. (The pages consist mainly of ads.) Coca-Cola consistently ranks among the most admired companies in the world and shows up on lists like Fortune magazine’s “25 Best Global Companies to Work For.” People feel affection, often tinged with nostalgia, for good ol’ Pepsi and Coke. Baby boomers who have long since stopped drinking soda remember the days when they swore allegiance to one brand or the other and claimed they could tell the difference, although as Nestle points out, people fail on blind taste tests and often end up preferring a generic cola over either of the big-name labels.
By nearly every responsible measure, the American diet is far too sugar-frosted, with the bulk of the sweeteners added during food processing for the sake of flavor “enhancement,” as opposed to the sugars that occur naturally in produce, milk, and whole grains. The average American consumes some twenty-two teaspoons of added sugar a day—350 calories’ worth—which is three times the limit recommended by groups like the American Heart Association. Sodas and related sweetened beverages account for an astonishing eleven of those twenty-two gratuitous teaspoons.
Partly as a result of a high-sugar diet, people end up consuming far more calories than they need to get through the day. The body manages the surplus as best it can, generally by enlarging a genetically personalized assortment of the many fat depots with which the human frame is marbled—around the belly, thighs, buttocks, breasts, under the arms, across the upper back, sometimes the neck and cheeks. Admittedly, weight gain also delivers a small bit of extra muscle tissue in the mix, but it’s not enough to counter the burden that the augmented fat stores place on the heart, lungs, and joints. Obesity is associated with a heightened risk of a broad range of disorders, including heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes.
The exact mechanisms through which excess weight promotes a given illness aren’t always clear, but recent research suggests that obesity amounts to a state of chronic inflammation, a low-level activation of the immune system. The perpetual release of immune-signaling molecules, like interleukin proteins, can end up damaging cells and swamping other essential signaling networks in the body, including the insulin circuitry that keeps blood-sugar levels stable; and the breakdown of insulin signaling, or insulin resistance, is the hallmark of diabetes. Again, the link between obesity and diabetes is by no means settled science, and most overweight or obese people do not have diabetes (or at least not yet). But 90 percent of patients with Type 2 diabetes—that is, so-called adult-onset diabetes, though the disease is also found in children—are overweight or obese.
Research also suggests that sugar is particularly harmful when consumed in liquid form. One research team compared findings from 114 international dietary surveys with mortality data from the World Health Organization and concluded that sugared beverages accounted for 184,000 deaths a year, most from diabetes. A European study of 350,000 people concluded that for each addition of a twelve-ounce sugared beverage to one’s daily diet, the risk of diabetes climbed by 22 percent. Sweetened sodas are known to rot teeth and are thought to leach calcium from bones. Some authorities have suggested that soft drinks sweetened in the traditional manner, with sucrose—table sugar crystallized from cane or beet plants—are less noxious to health than beverages containing the notorious high-fructose corn syrup, a relatively cheap sweetener invented in the 1970s. Nestle is agnostic on the question, and points out that sucrose and corn syrup alike break down into more or less equal proportions of the simple sugars glucose and fructose. Sugar quantity, she argues, matters far more than provenance.
With its profusion of charts, tables, and bulleted sidebars, Soda Politics reads more like an extended and often repetitive PowerPoint presentation than a book with a crisply organized narrative. Nestle expresses hope that community activists will use the volume as a handbook, to battle Big Soda with big data. Her underlying thesis is clear, and the story ongoing. The more the liberal consumption of soft drinks has been tied to the fattening of America and the rising rates of adult-onset diabetes, Nestle argues, the more desperate the soda industry’s defenses have grown. Here, lobbyists cast doubt on studies suggestive of harm; there, they deny such studies exist. They hire prestigious scientists to show they care; they try to change the subject, to divert attention away from that awkward nutrition label on the back of the can.
Among the industry’s cleverest tactics has been to take up the health and wellness mantle from a different angle—the “physical activity diversion,” as Nestle calls it. Soda makers concede that high obesity rates are a “serious” problem. They insist the problem is “complex,” and no single food or beverage group is to blame. The solution they trumpet is exercise. “Overweight and obesity are a result of an imbalance between calories consumed and calories burned,” the American Beverage Association says. Restoring that balance is simply a matter of adopting a sensible, varied diet and “getting plenty of exercise.”
In 2013, a full-page ad in The New York Times declared, “At Coca-Cola, we believe active lifestyles lead to happier lives. That’s why we are committed to creating awareness around choice and movement.” In other words, Coke can be a happy choice, if you couple it with Pilates. The soda industry has poured significant resources into the exercise diversion gambit, both here and abroad. Two years ago, Coca-Cola served as a major financier for the Fifth International Congress on Physical Activity and Public Health in Rio de Janeiro, a meeting promoted by prestigious groups like the International Council of Sport Science and Physical Education (“Have you taken your 30 minutes of physical activity today?”). Dr Pepper Snapple, the third-largest soda-pop conglomerate, sponsors programs to encourage “Random Acts of Play” and the reduction of today’s “play deficit” through the distribution of sports equipment and the construction or upgrading of two thousand playgrounds across North America. Nestle estimates that Coca-Cola and PepsiCo spend about $1 billion a year supporting major sports events and associations like the Olympic Games, the World Cup, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League.
Nestle is quick to emphasize—more than once—that she is a big proponent of regular physical activity and agrees that it is vital to overall health and well-being. Who can deny it? The problem is that it takes far more exercise to counter the casual consumption of sugared soft drinks than most people realize. If you want to burn off, say, four twelve-ounce cans of Pepsi or Dr Pepper a week, at 150 calories a can, plan on tacking another seventy minutes of jogging onto your weekly workout routine just as a remedy for soda. Those who need to lose weight, rather than simply keep it off, rarely succeed through exercise alone. To shed just one pound requires expending an extra 3,500 calories, which amounts to some seven hours of jogging—all without doing what many people do when they exercise a lot, which is consume more calories. Numerous studies have shown that dieting is a surer route to weight loss than is exercise, although the healthiest method of all is a virtuous combination of the two.
The unpromising metabolic calculus notwithstanding, Big Soda has pushed the exercise line hard—Coca-Cola to the point of damaging its reputation. In 2015, the company backed a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network, which billed itself as a “science-based” approach to tackling obesity and featured prominent researchers like James O. Hill, an obesity expert at the University of Colorado School of Medicine; Gregory A. Hand, dean of the West Virginia University School of Public Health; and Steven N. Blair, a professor of exercise science and epidemiology at the University of South Carolina. The scientists insisted that Coke’s financial support would in no way influence their research or compromise their scientific autonomy. Yet the basic aim of the organization was made clear in an introductory video on the group’s website, in which Blair complained that discussions about weight gain too often focused on how much Americans ate and not enough on how little they exercised. In fact, Blair said, there was “virtually no compelling evidence” that fast food, sweet beverages, or the like were at the heart of the obesity crisis.
The autonomy of the researchers was further called into question when the Associated Press published e-mails between Hill and Coke executives, comparing the nonprofit’s supposedly science-based mission to a “political campaign” for countering “radical organizations and their proponents”—the anti-soda crowd presumably among them. He also proposed that Coca-Cola underwrite a major study to better reveal a link between obesity and a lack of exercise. The study “could be a game changer,” Hill wrote, and “provide a strong rationale for why a company selling sugar water SHOULD focus on promoting physical activity.” He wished to restore Coke’s image as “a company that brings important and fun things” to people’s lives.
Other health experts were outraged by the group and its message, declaring in a public letter released last August that Coca-Cola and its nonprofit sidekick were distorting the research and disseminating “scientific nonsense.” The complaints quickly proved too much to bear. Toward the end of 2015, the Global Energy Balance Network was disbanded, the University of Colorado returned its tainted grant money to Coca-Cola, and Rhona S. Applebaum, Coke’s chief scientist and architect of the nonprofit venture, took early retirement. The entire affair, Marion Nestle told The New York Times, “has been a public relations disaster for Coca-Cola.”
Big Soda has been more successful at beating back legislative efforts to reduce soda consumption—for example, by making it more expensive. Public health activists have long viewed sweetened sodas as an excellent target for what might be called a vice VAT, a value-added tax that would discourage the purchase of an unhealthy product (and, as a side benefit, would help pay for any medical costs that the use of the product might incur). Cigarette taxes offered a model for this approach: high prices have been shown to depress cigarette sales, especially among the young. Health researchers calculated that a tax hike on soda of 12 to 20 percent—one or two cents per ounce—would significantly reduce demand, and they set out to persuade lawmakers of the wisdom of the levy.
The soda companies argued that it would be unfair to single out soft drinks for a tax: Why should cookies or potato chips get a pass? They claimed that the tax would hurt small businesses, lead to job losses, and unduly burden poor and minority communities—who were, after all, some of the biggest consumers of soda. They mocked the idea as un-American, an attack on free choice, a Euro-style intrusion of the nanny state.
Mostly, they talked with money, and lobbyists. Whenever and wherever legislators made the slightest gesture toward passing a soft drink tax, the soda industry instantly retaliated. Mayor Michael Nutter and the city council of Philadelphia wanted to tax soda at two cents an ounce. The American Beverage Association promised to donate $10 million to obesity prevention programs at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and, presto, the measure was withdrawn. David Paterson, governor of New York, proposed an 18 percent “obesity tax” on soft drinks. The industry spent $9.4 million on an aggressive lobbying and blitz-advertising campaign, disguised as a grassroots uprising called “New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes.” The bill never came up for a vote. Similar measures failed in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Richmond and El Monte, California, and some two dozen other jurisdictions. Only Berkeley, a college town with one of the most progressive legislative records in the nation, managed to pass a soda tax of a penny per ounce. The measure sailed through in 2014 with 76 percent of the vote.
But even the so-called People’s Republic of Berkeley would do well to remain vigilant, as the example of Mexico makes clear. International health activists consider Mexico their biggest victory to date in the soda tax wars. With one of the world’s highest rates of per capita soda consumption, as well as soaring rates of obesity and diabetes, the Mexican government decided in 2013 to impose a national tax on sugared drinks—raising their prices by about 10 percent. The tax appears to be working: according to a study by Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health and the University of North Carolina, Mexicans cut back on soda drinking by 6 percent overall in 2014 and by an even greater percentage among the poor, although the Mexican soft drink industry disputes the findings.
But the enthusiasm of the health community was tempered in late 2015, when Mexico’s lower legislative house voted to cut the soda tax in half for soft drinks with half the sugar of standard Coke or Pepsi, a move that, incidentally or otherwise, would have lowered the price of existing sweet beverages marketed for children. Stung by the international outcry, the Mexican Senate hastily overturned the tax-cut measure, but few believe the matter is settled for good.
More reliable than legislation, perhaps, is messaging, peer pressure and sneer pressure—the ongoing campaign to make soda look trashy and tired. Yes, the piety of food purists can get irritating, and food fashions are always ridiculous when taken to extremes. The noisiest trend now is to demonize virtually all sweets and most carbohydrates, to the point where a ripe juicy honeydew melon is dismissed as “nature’s junk food.” But we all know the basic script for a reasonably healthy life. It hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years. Eat a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, moderate amounts of protein and fats, a minimum of added sugars, and don’t eat when you’re not hungry. If you drink alcohol, don’t overdrink. Get some sort of exercise every day. Try not to obsess over food or talk too much about food or take pictures of your food and post them online.
Maybe it isn’t fair to single out soda for opprobrium when candy bars and frosted crullers are also nonnutritious calorie grenades. But sugared soft drinks happen to be an easy target. We don’t need them, our children don’t need them, and we surely won’t miss them when they’re gone.