Is the Soda Industry Really Helping to Curb Obesity?

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The American Beverage Association's CEO and an official from the National Institutes of Health face off at our Food Summit

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WASHINGTON--Even the soda industry admits that obesity is a problem to which it has contributed and should help solve. "We agree that it's a serious epidemic, and we need a full court press to resolve it," proclaimed Susan Neely, president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, at a panel on consumer choice and nutrition at The Atlantic's Food Summit. And according to Neely, the beverage industry has already gone to great lengths to do its part. "One of the contributions we're making as an industry is to produce beverages with less calories, lots of beverages with zero calories," she said. "We've reduced the calories in our beverage portfolio by 21 percent."

But can merely providing these healthier options change American culture? Well, no, not really--at least according to panelist Ezekiel Emanuel, the chair of the Department of Clinical Bioethics at the Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health. Sure, Americans have a less caloric option, but offering diet versions of existing drinks doesn't change habits, Emanuel argued. In fact, he noted, it could train kids to yearn for sweets. In any case, the beverage industry can certainly do more.

The sometimes heated conversation that ensued covered several aspects of the debate about soft drinks and how to think about them in order to promote health. Here are some of the highlights.

Portion Control. Neely argued that soda companies already offer "mini cans" to help encourage smaller portions. But the problem lies in the can's very name. A healthy serving size is deemed "mini," normalizing larger sizes. As Emanuel pointed out, 40 years ago average beverage size measured in at a mere 6.5 ounces, and now Americans regard 20 ounces as normal: "6.5 looks puny to us--puny!" Across the board, Emanuel advocated a cultural shift of attitudes about acceptable beverage sizes.

Education. Beverage companies have made an effort to improve nutritional labeling, but even Neely admitted that this information isn't helpful unless consumers understand what it really means. As Emanuel argued, someone who reads that a can of soda has 140 calories might not understand how that factors into his or her daily intake.

Taxes. A soda tax has been proposed as not only a way to deter buyers but also as a way to raise funds for initiatives to promote health. Neely insisted not only that a bill would not be politically feasible, but also that it does not make sense: "It won't work to solve obesity and it's not sound tax policy--because there is not a sound revenue source, or an equitable revenue source." The tax would have to be pretty high to loosen American belts. But, as Emanuel countered, some areas have enacted these sorts of taxes, and more research needs to be done on the policy's effectiveness or lack thereof.

The bottom line.
Neely admitted that the beverage industry reacts to consumers desires. Healthier products have come about because people have wanted more healthy choices and the beverage industry responded. But as Emanuel noted, other factors are at play, besides choice, that push people to consume sugary and high-calorie beverages. What happens when profit motives and healthy behaviors are no longer compatible?

Image: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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Rebecca Greenfield is a writer based in Brooklyn. She was formerly on staff at The Atlantic Wire.

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