Bringing Down Big Soda

One of the most pressing health concerns facing America today is the epidemic of obesity, with more than one third of adults in the country currently suffering from the disease.

In the national conversation surrounding this issue, sugary soda drinks are largely implicated as main contributors to the problem. Dr. Marion Nestle, a public health advocate and expert on food and nutrition policy, aims to hold soda accountable for its role. She has conducted extensive research and launched a veritable call to arms for health activists and concerned citizens.

Nestle’s latest book, “Soda Politics: Taking On Big Soda (And Winning),” explores these issues, providing readers with the tools necessary to turn their own health around and help effect larger change. She sat down with BTR to discuss her book, and the political and personal actions that Americans can take to enact healthier lifestyle choices.

BreakThru Radio (BTR): Your book aims to deconstruct the sophisticated marketing and the political maneuvering of the big soda companies like Coca Cola and Pepsi Co. What first inspired you to write this book?

Marion Nestle (MN): Well I’ve been writing about the ways in which the food industry markets to people and influences dietary patterns, and therefore health, for a long time. I’ve actually been writing about sodas for a long time too. My first article, about the marketing practices of soda companies, came out in the late 1990s.

There’s been an enormous advocacy for public health and getting people to drink less soda. There’s so much more information about the relationship of sugary drinks to poor health outcome, that it just seemed to me that this was the time. I’m really interested in public health advocacy and this is a situation in which advocacy is really working. People in the United States are drinking less soda–a lot less soda.

BTR: One question you seek to answer in the book is how products containing extremely inexpensive ingredients became multibillion dollar industries and international brand icons, while also having a devastating impact on public health. How are you able to answer this question?

MN: Well I wrote a 500 page book [laughs], but broken down into very small chapters–and lots of pictures! The short answer is marketing. That those sort of companies were brilliant in convincing people that these products were a legitimate and better substitute for drinking than water.

One of the major changes took place during the second World War, when Coca Cola made a deal with the army that it would supply cokes to soldiers anywhere in the world for five cents. The partnership involved the military transporting these drinks everywhere, putting them in canteens, helping the soda industry build bottling plants all over the world. And that’s really what started it. That, and marketing, have brought it to the situation where it is now.

It was never a problem when people had a little six oz. bottle of Coca Cola once a week. When it became a problem is when obesity became a problem. Largely because portion sizes got bigger. When the soda industry started pushing larger portions, so did everybody else and that combination made people gain weight.

BTR: Along these same lines of marketing, tell us a little bit about the parallels between soda companies and tobacco companies.

MN: Soda companies are not tobacco companies, and sodas are not cigarettes, but many aspects of the ways in which soda companies market their products are very, very similar to the ways in which cigarette companies are operated. Soda companies market specifically to children and low income minorities, they create front groups to try to promote their products; they lobby and they advertise that they’re really about hydration.

The problem with obesity is physical activity, not what you’re drinking. All of these ways in which the companies have tried to protect themselves–there are many similarities.

BTR: The World Health Organization recommends limiting sugar to no more than five to ten percent of your daily calories. Is there room for that once-a-day soda that soda companies advocate for, along with physical exercise?

MN: Not if you eat anything else that has sugar in it. One 16oz. soda meets the upper limit of what the World Health Organization recommends, for most people. So if you have one 16oz. soda you’ve done your sugar for the day. I think that’s a very shocking fact for a lot of people. Most people have no idea how much sugar there is in these fizzy drinks. The way I remember it, it’s nearly one teaspoon per ounce, so that means if you have a 12oz soda you’ve got 10 teaspoons of sugar. That’s a lot.

BTR: What are some simple ways that our audience could get on a healthier diet without spending a lot of money?

MN: A healthier diet? Eat vegetables. Don’t eat too much junk food. It’s really that simple!

BTR: In terms of soda, you were saying that once weekly was fine before obesity came into the picture. Is once a week fine for somebody who is an average weight today in America?

MN: Well you need to think about sodas as liquid candy. Once you do that, you put sodas in the same category as candy; you know where candy fits into your diet. It’s not something that most people eat every day or all day long–you have one or you have two occasionally. But you’re not going to be buying a liter of soda and drinking it all day long if you’re concerned about your health. So less is better, once in a while is fine, and you need to figure out for yourself how it fits into your diet and activity levels.

BTR: Your book does more than just detail the issue of big soda companies, it proposes some solutions. How are some of the advocates in places like Berkeley and Mexico City working to successfully counter the strong, sugary drink campaigns?

MN: Well they passed soda taxes. And Berkeley in particular passed a soda tax with an electoral percentage of 76, meaning 76 percent of the people who voted in that election voted for the tax. That was the result of extraordinary advocacy and community organizing, and a real concern about the inequities and health in the community.

Berkeley has just announced that the tax is bringing in about $125,000 a month, and those funds (which generated a million and a half dollars last year) will be used for anti-soda campaigns, for health campaigns for children, and to promote healthier diets in schools, among other things. So this is a model for communities who want to promote the health of the people in their community.

Mexico also passed a soda tax last year and the results of that first year are in, and show that there’s been a 12 percent reduction in soda sales in Mexico since the tax went into effect. Whether that’s because of the tax, or because of the enormous publicity generated about how much healthier people would be if they drank water instead of soda, I don’t think anybody knows. But whatever it is, it’s a trend in the right direction.

BTR: What are some other tools that readers gain from your book to help build healthier diets for themselves as well as their communities?

MN: I use sodas as an example, of how you advocate for healthier diets for people on the planet. The advocacy tools that various groups use are well established and I talk about them a lot throughout the book.

There’s a chapter on how to teach your kids to know about sugars and sodas, and what’s good for them and what’s bad for them. There are chapters that describe some of the more important advocacy events that have taken place and how they worked, so there’s a lot of analysis in there. I’m hoping that people will read it as an advocacy manual. I also post on my website on the page devoted to soda politics, an enormous list of videos and visual materials that people can use in their campaigns. So I’m hoping that the book will be very very useful for people who want to do food advocacy.

BTR: With soda sales declining, what do you expect to see from the soda industry in the next couple of decades?

MN: Well we’re already seeing the soda industry focusing very, very hard on trying to create healthier products that people will want to buy, and also promoting the smaller sized cans. Those are both positive things that the industry can do. How they’re going to survive, and how they’re going to deal with the problems that health advocacy groups are posing is something that lots of people are watching with great interest. I certainly am.