The Bear’s Best Friend

Coca-Cola for sale at the Western Navajo Nation Fair, Tuba City, Arizona, October 2015; photograph by Larry Towell
Magnum Photos
Coca-Cola for sale at the Western Navajo Nation Fair, Tuba City, Arizona, October 2015; photograph by Larry Towell

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…

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