Making soda (not quite) a health food

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We should applaud the fact that consumption of carbonated drinks has slid by at least 20 percent since 1998, but the industry is working hard to reverse that trend. It is pouring huge amounts of money into advertising, discounting at supermarkets, deals with fast-food chains, and developing new products. The new $50 million tie-in that Pepsi inked with Beyoncé is only the tip of that company’s marketing iceberg. Coca-Cola invests about $2 billion annually in marketing its various sugar drinks in the United States alone (and far more overseas).

Meanwhile, health experts and legislators are trying to put the soda genie back in the bottle — or at least return consumption to what it was when small bottles of soda were occasional treats. In addition to the size limit, their drumbeat of proposals have called for excise taxes, elimination from government cafeterias and other venues, warning labels on containers, and prohibition of certain ingredients. 

Those initiatives, plus high-profile videos and grim media coverage, have put industry on the defensive. In the past few years, companies have had to spend about $100 million on lobbyists and advertising just to beat back proposed excise taxes and millions more to try to bolster their reputations.

But there might be a way to turn the sow’s ear into (almost) a silk purse and broker a peace between health advocates and the industry. Recently, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to make sugar drinks much safer. The petition argues that while the FDA considers added sugars, including the high-fructose corn syrup used in most carbonated drinks, to be “generally recognized as safe” (“GRAS”), the amounts that Americans are consuming clearly are not. Indeed, the average American consumes three times as much refined sugars as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and American Heart Association recommend. 

CSPI asked the FDA to determine a safe level of sugar in beverages and then develop regulations that would take effect over several years. Companies could make up for the missing sweetness by means of an increasing choice of non-caloric sweeteners. First, there are the stand-by artificial sweeteners, including aspartame and acesulfame-potassium. I have concerns about their safety, but a third, sucralose, or Splenda, appears to be safe. New natural non-caloric sweeteners, such as rebiana (from stevia), are promising and others are on the way.  In addition, companies are developing “sweetness enhancers” that sensitize taste buds to sugars. Those additives may permit 50 percent reductions in sugar (or sucralose). 

So between high-potency sweeteners and sweetness enhancers, beverage companies should be able to reduce the sugar and calorie content by 75 percent or more. PepsiCo Indra Nooyi is predicting that sort of “disruptive innovation.” And that’s probably what Harold Honickman, a major East Coast Pepsi bottler, was referring to when he told the Philadelphia Inquirer that in two years “I honestly think that you will find ‘regular’ Pepsi, ‘regular’ Coke with new kinds of sweeteners. They will be better-tasting drinks than we have today.”

I wouldn’t count on that happening all by itself, because any company worries about tinkering with its products and losing market share. That’s why the soft-drink giants shouldn’t fear CSPI’s petition. By working on a level playing field established by the FDA, they would accomplish something the tobacco and gun industries never could: make their products safe and get critics off their backs. Few health officials would complain about beverages that had, say, 40 calories per can (compared to 140 in today’s Coke), and legislators would stop demanding excise taxes and warning labels. The companies would win public applause, while saving hundreds of millions of dollars a year in ingredient costs. And, most importantly, the soda companies would become part of the solution to the obesity epidemic that is afflicting tens of millions of Americans.

Jacobson is the founder and executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.