In her book, “Soda Politics: Taking On Big Soda (and Winning),” Dr. Marion Nestle examines the history of the soda industry and what science says about health effects. She also offers ways to fight back. Nestle will speak in Seattle on Tuesday, Nov. 3.
The soda industry has been taking a beating lately. First there was the mounting evidence that sugary drinks contribute to obesity and chronic disease. Then there came the proposals for soda taxes and portion limits. Finally, there was the revelation that Coca-Cola, the soda industry’s biggest player, was paying for science that could knock holes in claims that soda contributes to ill health.
In her new book “Soda Politics: Taking On Big Soda (and Winning),” Dr. Marion Nestle examines the history of the soda industry, explores what science says about soda’s health effects, and offers a road map for fighting back. Nestle will discuss her book Tuesday at Town Hall.
“There are a lot of books about the soda industry, but this one is about advocacy,” said Nestle, who is the Paulette Goddard professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, as well as the author of several books on food politics. She said soda is a low-hanging fruit that public-health advocates can use to make progress, then apply what they learn to other public-health issues.
Although soda remains a highly profitable industry, sales have been dropping, and the industry knows why: “They’ve been reporting to the (Security and Exchange Commission) for the last 10 years that obesity is the single greatest threat to profitability,” Nestle said.
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In “Soda Politics,” Nestle outlines how the soda industry has responded to criticism that its products have adverse health effects by borrowing heavily from the tobacco industry’s playbook. “What the tobacco industry did was to sell doubt — or sow doubt, more accurately,” she said. “The first thing is that you cast doubt on the science. You attack the science, you attack the scientists. Then you raise other possibilities.”
The biggest possibility raised by the soda industry is that lack of physical activity — not empty calories from sugar — is the reason for rising obesity rates. “Theoretically it makes perfect sense,” Nestle said. “It’s just that people who are overdrinking sodas are not overdrinking them by a hundred calories. My rule of thumb is that it takes about a mile to walk off 100 calories. If you’re overdrinking sodas by one 20-ounce soda, you’ve got three miles to walk to work that off. If you drink a liter, you have to walk a lot more.”
Another play from the tobacco playbook: the soda industry’s vigilant, behind-the-scenes work to squash proposed anti-soda regulations. Despite industry efforts, 76 percent of Berkeley, Calif., voters approved a soda tax, which is now generating about $100,000 a month for the city’s child health programs. “Other communities that are looking for ways to fund social services and health programs will be very interested in this,” she said. “It may lower soda consumption, and it raises funds.”
The soda industry also trumpets the idea of personal freedom, but is a choice truly free when we’re bombarded with sophisticated advertising tactics? “Advertising is supposed to slip below the radar, and the research is very, very clear that advertising works,” Nestle said. “But people are outraged at the idea that advertising would have any effect on them. They say no one’s forcing them to make the choice they make.”
As for what the future holds, Nestle said most of the soda industry’s profits last year came from smaller, 8-ounce cans, which companies can charge more for, and that to the industry’s credit, “They’re really working hard to find healthier drinks that people will buy.”