Soda Surrender?

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Sugary beverages — regular soda as well as energy drinks and sports drinks — have long been the target of health advocates who believe that these drinks play a major role in the obesity crisis in the United States, as well as the related diabetes epidemic. From New York City’s failed attempt to limit soft drink portion sizes to calls for warning labels on sugary soda like those on tobacco products, soda has been singled out for special attention. Beverage companies pushed back hard, insisting that all calories count and encouraging people to exercise more without acknowledging that liquid sugar is any different from other sources of calories.

As of late last month, however, beverage companies seem to have tacitly acknowledged their role in the obesity epidemic by pledging to reduce the number of calories in beverages consumed by Americans. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, the Coca Cola-Company, PepsiCo, and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group have agreed to work jointly to reduce the beverage calories consumed by Americans 20% by the year 2025. The agreement was reached after discussions with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a group founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation. According to the terms of the pledge, the companies will market and distribute their products in a way that steers consumers toward water and diet beverages, as well as regular sugary beverages with reduced portion sizes. They have also agreed to post calorie counts on vending machines, self-serve soda fountains, and retail coolers in stores and restaurants.

But some groups aren’t impressed by the new agreement, asserting that it doesn’t do enough to address the health effects of sugar consumption. According to the American Heart Association, Americans consume about twice as much sugar overall as health guidelines suggest they should. Since sugary beverages account for about a third of added sugars in the American diet, the new pledge by beverage companies may only reduce overall sugar consumption by about 7% — when Americans should be reducing their sugar consumption by at least 50%. One way to get a lot closer to 50%, of course, would be to cut out sugary beverages entirely, something that beverage companies would never suggest and a trend that would devastate them financially if enough Americans adopted it.

In fact, it seems clear that the interests of beverage companies and health advocates cannot be reconciled — beverage companies want to sell more sugary beverages, and health advocates want Americans to purchase far fewer. This conflict may explain why policy proposals that health advocates believe would be the most effective at reducing sugar consumption — such as warning labels and special taxes on sugary drinks — are also the ones that beverage companies have fought against the hardest.

What do you think — will this agreement represent the beginning of a more conciliatory approach from beverage companies, or are they trying to ward off stricter regulations by striking deals? Do you think that more voluntary agreements like this one, or more government regulations, will lead to less sugar consumption and better health? Is diet soda the answer to both the obesity crisis and the sales concerns of beverage companies, or is there a reason diet drinks haven’t overtaken sugary ones in popularity? Leave a comment below!

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