In the past few years, soda and obesity headlines have become something of a norm. Soda-backers claim the carbonated beverage has become a scapegoat for the obesity epidemic in America. And- soda is easy to pick on. Almost all nutrition experts agree that soda, with its large amount of liquid sugar with no nutritional value, is unhealthy. Unlike the many gray areas in the world of nutrition, the case of soda’s relationship to obesity seems relatively black and white. However, there is also a lot of controversy regarding the sugary, or artificially sweetened, drink, which doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.
Notably, New York City has been a prominent public health crusader in the battle with the soda industry. In 2011, there was a failed proposal that SNAP benefits not be used for soda purchases. Then just last year, Mayor Bloomberg made headlines again as his city was prepared to ban the sale of large sugar-sweetened beverages. That ban passed and was set to begin in March of this year, but the city announced it would not enforce the law until June. After the initial 3-month grace period, businesses will face fines of up to $200. There is also an ongoing lawsuit, sponsored by beverage makers and other businesses, to block the ban from ever becoming effective. The outcome of the lawsuit has yet to be decided.
A similar soda ban was proposed in Cambridge last year and was recently discussed at a city hall meeting. The law would be similar to the NYC version, where sugar-sweetened large beverages would not be sold at certain food service outlets and restaurants. The size of the beverages at which the restriction would take place has yet to be determined. It’s unclear which way the city will go, although Cambridge is known for being a progressive city.
Unsurprisingly, the soda industry is not taking this fight lying down. Coca-Cola has come up with a new campaign to clear their name in the obesity battle, and declare itself an ally in the public health fight (view the ad here). The bottom line of the commercial is that “all calories count” and that everyone needs to work together to find a solution to the obesity epidemic. Coca-Cola highlights its smaller portion sizes, array of low- and no-calorie offerings, and its calorie displays on the front of the package as part of the solution. And yet, they also continue to sell large amounts of soda. Can they really be counted on as a public health ally?
Coca-Cola isn’t the only beverage company making waves. Beyoncé Knowles recently net a 50 million sponsorship deal with Pepsi-Co. Nutrition advocates were up in arms, especially given that Beyoncé is tightly linked with Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! ampaign. In fact, it prompted Mark Bittman to write an entire op-ed piece outlining his disdain for the specific coupling as well as stars in general hawking soda. As we gear up for the Super Bowl, traditionally laden with ads promoting beer and packaged snacks, promo spots for the Pepsi Halftime Show with Beyoncé will also dominate airwaves. These kinds of messages are in direct opposition of the “Drink Smart” portion of Let’s Move! that encourages children to drink more water and pass on sugar-sweetened beverages.
And while soda companies are trying to stem the negative press, they may be fighting a losing battle. Soda sales have declined by about 2% in terms of volume in the past year. For the past 8 years, soda consumption has been declining as consumers are replacing soda with other beverages.
It appears that in the fight against obesity, public health proponents cannot necessarily depend on celebrities or soda companies for help. It seems likely, though, that the fight with soda will continue well into the future. As the battle wages on, hopefully the many smart and hard working people fighting for public health will beat out the multi-millions they (and we all) are up against.
Lisa D’Agrosa, is a second year nutrition communication student who loves her reusable water bottle and is fairly addicted to making (and drinking!) her own seltzer.