Perhaps the most widespread myth about soda is related to the obesity epidemic. Our critics claim that it can be reversed if people stop drinking soda. This argument ignores the complexities of obesity by assuming – insisting – that there’s a silver bullet to this serious health issue. In fact, they are running the risk of implying that this very serious problem could be solved by singling out any one food or beverage as a unique contributor to obesity. Further, mandating elimination of any one product from the diet wrongly suggests a means to address it. What we need instead is our society’s attention, a way to educate them about the many causes of obesity and a comprehensive approach to supporting them as they seek healthier lifestyles and behaviors.
It is important to understand that the obesity epidemic problem was not uniquely caused by soda and certainly cannot be solved by blaming soda alone. For example, data shows that calories from soda and other sweetened beverages like teas, fruit drinks, and sports drinks, are in decline. Calories in the average American diet from added sugar in soda has declined 39 percent since 2000. Sales of full-calorie soft drinks have declined 12.5 percent from 1999 to 2010. If calories and consumption are down, and obesity is up, then how can we focus on soda as a unique driver of obesity? The answer is we cannot and should not.
As an industry, we understand that obesity is a very serious and complex problem facing our nation, which is why we have and continue to take steps to be part of meaningful solutions. For example, by teaming with President Bill Clinton, the beverage industry successfully implemented their national School Beverage Guidelines, which removed full-calorie soft drinks from all schools and replaced them with lower-calorie, smaller-portion options, driving a 90 percent reduction in beverage calories shipped to schools since 2004. The successful implementation of this voluntary program did not depend on government mandates or blame; rather, it was aided by a cooperative partnership that set common sense guidelines and realistic timetables.
Continuing on our commitment to Americans, when First Lady Michelle Obama announced the “Let’s Move!” campaign to end childhood obesity, our member companies stepped up to the plate and supported the campaign with our Clear on Calories initiative. By putting calorie information on the front of every bottle, can and pack we produce, we gave consumers the information they needed to make the beverage decision that was best for them and their families.
This year we are expanding that initiative to include vending machines. The Calories Count™ Vending Program offers consumers clear calorie information, encourages lower-calorie beverage choices and reminds consumers that all calories count in the choices they make. On the front of vending machines, consumers will see Calories Count™ signs that include one of the following messages: “Check Then Choose” or “Try a Low–Calorie Beverage.” The selection buttons will also include calorie labels that show calories per beverage. First launched in a private-public partnership with the mayors of Chicago and San Antonio, leading beverage companies have pledged to continue working with government leaders, food service operators, vending companies and other customers to implement this program and make it available nationwide.
Finally, in our critic’s op-ed, the beverage industry was compared to cigarettes and guns. To compare soft drinks to tobacco is not factual. You can be a healthy person and enjoy an occasional soda; the same cannot be said for smoking. This is nothing more than a “spin” tactic designed to appeal to the reader’s emotions. The facts and science frankly do not support our critics’ claims.
Our member companies are food industry leaders that are committed to being responsible corporate citizens. As an industry, we have made countless innovations to bring beverage variety to consumers that will fit their individual lifestyles, and we will continue working to ensure that those who choose to consume any of our products can do so knowing the truth and having the knowledge to help them make an informed decision.
The truth? A focus on calories alone, especially on only one source of calories, will not reduce obesity in our country. As the first lady’s program suggests, we must move, set our bodies in motion, and exercise, as well. And, just as extreme consumption of any source of calories won't help in the fight against obesity, neither will spreading extreme opinions disguised as facts.
Neely is president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, the leading policy and public education advocate for the non-alcoholic beverage industry.