Memo from MFJ

Soda Wars

December 2012

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On October 10, 2012, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (publisher of Nutrition Action), in effect, declared war on soda pop and other sugary drinks.

The initial shots didn't come from guns or missiles, but from our first music video. "The Real Bears" features a catchy, cheerful song by Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Jason Mraz. The story line isn't so cheerful, though. It describes the fate of a cuddly polar-bear family that consumes too much soda and ends up with obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, and erectile dysfunction.

The video quickly went viral, with close to two million views by presstime.

People loved it. The soft-drink industry hated it. Coca-Cola sputtered and fumed. "This is irresponsible and the usual grandstanding from CSPI," it charged. How juicy and hypocritical is that, coming from a company that spends some $2 billion a year to convince Americans to buy its sugary drinks? That includes not only the cost of ads, but also the enormous sums that the company doles out to fast-food restaurants to sell only Coke products, to supermarkets to display Coke products, and to health and civic organizations to not criticize soft drinks.

Bad news bears. Not everything goes better with Coke.

The truth is that sugary beverages (sodas and energy, fruit, and sports drinks) are nutritionally worthless and a major cause of obesity. That means they contribute to higher rates of diabetes (with its blindness, amputations, and erectile dysfunction), heart attacks, strokes, and other illnesses. Soft drinks cause so much harm because Americans consume so much and because beverages are more likely than solid foods to make you gain weight.

Fortunately, the word is getting out. Soft drinks have been kicked out of schools, people are switching to bottled water, and health officials are calling for taxes on sugary drinks. Since we published our first report on "Liquid Candy" in 1998, per-capita consumption has declined by 25 percent and, for the first time in 30 years, obesity rates appear to be leveling off. But we're not close to returning sugary drinks to their 1950s role: an occasional treat consumed in small portions.

The irony is that now, more than ever, the beverage industry can afford to reduce its reliance on full-sugar products. Coke, Pepsi, and smaller companies are marketing a wider range of low- and no-calorie drinks. The race is on to replace sugar with intensely sweet natural substances (like stevia and monk fruit). And a biotech company is working on compounds that sensitize the sweetness detectors on the tongue, which could slash the need for sugar (or high-fructose corn syrup) in drinks.

I predict that, with continued pressure from parents and professionals, in 10 years the beverage market will look very different from today, with the happy result—for soda-swigging bears and people—that rates of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes will be lower.

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Center for Science in the Public Interest

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Look for Michael Jacobson's column on the Huffington Post.

The contents of NAH are not intended to provide medical advice, which should be obtained from a qualified health professional. The use of information from Nutrition Action Healthletter for commercial purposes is prohibited without written permission from CSPI.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is the nonprofit health-advocacy group that publishes Nutrition Action Healthletter. CSPI mounts educational programs and presses for changes in government and corporate policies.

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