by Lara Goodrich Ezor
The American Beverage Association has announced its new “Balance Calories Initiative,” which aims to reduce calorie consumption from beverages by 20% by 2025. Through the initiative, beverage companies will join together to reduce portion sizes, increase access to low-calorie drinks and calorie information, and launch the “Mixify” campaign, which encourages consumer choice in formulating a healthy balance between food, drink and physical activity.
In September, the American Beverage Association (ABA) announced its Balance Calories Initiative, which they’re heralding as the “single-largest voluntary effort by an industry to help fight obesity.” The Balance Calories Initiative aims to reduce beverage calories consumed per capita by 20 percent by 2025 in the United States. ABA represents Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the Dr. Pepper-Snapple Group, among other beverage companies.
“Our industry has a longstanding commitment to being part of the solution to reducing obesity in America,” the ABA said in a press release. “Now, with our Balance Calories Initiative, we are transforming the beverage landscape in communities nationwide. This initiative will take our efforts to provide consumers with more choices, smaller portions, and fewer calories to an ambitious new level.”
The new initiative was announced at the Clinton Foundation, and former President Bill Clinton lauded the move. Citing successful industry-supported programs to reduce sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) in schools, Clinton proclaimed that the new initiative further illustrates the promise of “creative cooperation” between public health interests and industry.
“I am excited about the potential of this voluntary commitment by the beverage industry,” Clinton said in a press release. “It can be a critical step in our ongoing fight against obesity.”
In partnership with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, the initiative puts forth three principal, national-level goals for beverage companies: first, to “increase and sustain consumer interest in and access to smaller portion sizes, water and no- and lower-calorie beverages.” Second is to post calorie lists on all points-of-sale of beverages, including vending machines. And third is the launch of a “national consumer awareness and engagement program — Mixify™ — encouraging teens and their families to balance their calories by moderating what they consume, including beverages, and getting more active.”
On the local level, the initiative will target communities with limited access to lower-calorie options. Efforts will include providing more low-calorie options for sale, as well as the implementation of coupon and product placement campaigns to encourage their consumption. The community initiatives will launch first in Los Angeles, California and Little Rock, Arkansas.
The Balance Calories Initiative isn’t the only thing on the horizon for the ABA. This month, Berkeley and San Francisco voters will decide on Measure D and Proposition E, proposed sales taxes that would increase the price of sugar-sweetened beverages by 1-2 cents per ounce. Thirty previous initiatives around the country – including Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed New York City soda tax – have failed to pass. The Balance Calories Initiative was announced as the ABA simultaneously poured $7.7 million into preventing the passage of these upcoming ballot measures. The ABA has also lobbied the FDA to ditch its proposed “added sugars” label to the new Nutrition Facts panel.
Consumer choice and freedom have consistently been the core arguments against proposed “soda taxes.” By attempting to reduce beverage calories consumed through increased access and awareness, the Balance Calories Initiative and Mixify campaign further champion the right of consumer choice. By helping consumers think about their daily choices, the new initiative tries to move consumers towards a personalized, healthy balance of food, drinks and physical activity.
The Mixify campaign’s first promotional video says the project offers “tips, tools and inspiration to help find a balance that’s right for you…Balance what you eat and drink with what you do. That’s how you Mixify.”
Aimed at teenagers, the largest consumers of sodas, the video directs viewers to resources for creating a personalized, “mixified” balance and encourages them to share their personal mix with the Twitter handle #mymixify.
How this initiative will register with consumers remains to be seen. But one thing is clear – the ABA and the companies it represents don’t anticipate sacrificing profit in the name of their new initiative. Of course, they will continue to innovate. Thus far, some profitable and lower-calorie innovations include the sale of bottled water, smaller soda cans, and reduced-calorie drinks (such as Coke Life, sweetened by a stevia and sugar combination).
As nutrition and public health students, many complex and critical questions emerge with the launch of the Balance Calories Initiative and Mixify campaign. Is this a tacit admission that SSBs have played an instrumental role in the obesity health crisis? Or is it a strategic move on the part of an industry whose sales have been falling? (Sales of caloric soda have fallen 15% since 1998.)
Do lower-calorie alternatives provide a true improvement over SSBs, or is this an example of an industry trying to make less healthy products appear integral to a balanced diet? And, does immense funding to defeat “soda taxes” while touting a Balance Calories Initiative illustrate hypocrisy in the beverage industry?
Finally, do the motivations of the industry even matter if they lead to better public health outcomes and dietary balance? These are no small questions.
That Americans have slowly reduced consumption of nutrient-poor, calorie-dense sodas is certainly good news for our health. But calories from beverages continue to contribute substantially to our diets.
With its new initiative, the ABA is attempting to adapt in order to meet an important public health goal. At face value, however, joining the fight for obesity prevention might seem contrary to the mission of the ABA and soda companies. You can call it hypocrisy or “creative collaboration” — see the glass “half empty” or “half full” – but it’s clear that the beverage industry has solidified its place at the food policy table.
So, how do you “Mixify?”
Lara Goodrich Ezor is a second-year FPAN student and co-editor of the Sprout. She takes soymilk in her coffee, drinks a green smoothie every morning, and is known to sip diet soda on airplanes. That’s #mymixify.