American Soda Makers Join in Effort to Cut Calories Americans Consume in Drinks

“Today we announce a profoundly important commitment to combat the obesity epidemic by cutting calories in America’s soft drinks – outside of school and beyond children,” said Bill Clinton, announcing a new soda initiative.

On September 23, at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual meeting in New York, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group made an announcement: a shared goal to reduce the number of calories consumed per person through soda and sugary drinks by 20% by 2025.

How will these beverage companies achieve their goal? Through a mixture of marketing tactics, distribution, and packaging. The initiative builds off of a 2006 agreement to limit portion sizes targeted at school kids, which, according to a 2012 independent analysis in the American Journal of Public Heath, results in beverage calories shipped to schools falling by 90% between 2004 and 2010. Some see the announcement as a direct response to the growing criticism of the beverage industry, which is blamed for contributing to America’s obesity epidemic.

Currently more than one third of the United States is obese, and a lot of the developed world has similar problems. Worldwide, the amount of overweight and obese people increased from 857 million in 1980 to 2.1 billion in 2013 – an increase of over 145%. Although the amount of obese individuals in the United States tops the list, China, India, Russia, and Brazil, among others, follow close behind.

While the average consumer obtains an average of about 6% of their daily caloric intake from sugary sodas, in low-income communities, a child may consume more than half of their daily calories from sugary sodas. A soda might cost $.50, while a bottled water might cost $1.99 – it’s not hard to see why children, or their parents, might chose a sugary drink.

How are these sodas contributing to obesity? They contain huge amounts of refined sugar, which has a high glycemic index but a low satiating property, a combination believed to contribute to large amounts of weight gain, and eventually obesity.  According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, there are many problems stemming from obesity, including and not limited to: coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, type II diabetes, abnormal blood fats, metabolic syndrome, cancer, sleep apnea, reproductive problems, and gallstones.

Will this strategy of Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group actually help lower obesity rates? Susan Neely, chief executive officer of the American Beverage Association, believes it will: “This is the single-largest voluntary effort by an industry to help fight obesity,” she said in a statement. “The initiative will help transform the beverage landscape in America.”

The different beverage companies committed to widening the availability of low and zero calorie drinks, as well as selling drinks in smaller sizes. Each company also plans to provide calorie counts and promote calories awareness.

“This is really important. This strategy can sustainably lower the aggregate weight of the country in a way that will dramatically improve health outcomes, reduce the risk of obesity and diabetes, and its attended consequences, and in particular cases can help us to reverse type II diabetes which is profoundly important,” said Bill Clinton while announcing the initiative.

However, many health experts are skeptical of the initiative to make any real difference – they see it as little more than a good public relations move and marketing tactic. Sales of sugary drinks have been declining in the last 10 years or so – according to the Beverage Digest, calories consumed through soda declined 12% from 2000 to 2013, many see the announcement as capitalizing on a trend already taking place.

“I suspect they’re promising what’s going to happen anyway,” said Kelly Brownell, an expert on obesity and dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. “All the trends are showing decreased consumption of high-calorie beverages, and so what better way to get a public relations boost than to promise to do what’s happening anyway?”

Regardless of whether or not this initiative is going to make a big difference, it’s clear that sugary drinks are contributing to America’s, as well as the rest of the world’s, obesity problem. Hopefully the decline in consumption continues, and the obesity rate falls with it, lessening the burden on our healthcare system and making Americans healthier.

This initiative may help the beverage companies goal to offset the decline in sugary beverages purchased. It is questionable whether purchasing and consuming slightly less sugary beverages and/or artificially sweetened beverages will assist with obesity and all of its health related options. Perhaps a better, but more controversial and challenging option would be to avoid beverages with added sugar and artificial sugar altogether and address access to other types of beverages.

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