Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sugary Drinks and the Nation's Growing Girth

"When McDonald's execs first struck up their lucrative business partnership with the Coca-Cola Company in 1955, they were thinking small—literally. At the time, the only size of the beverage available for purchase was a measly 7-ounce cup. But by 1994, America's classic burger joint was offering a fountain drink size six times bigger."
The U.S. is a nation of soda-holics. Nearly half of all Americans drink soda daily, and not just one glass or can. The average American drinks 2.6 glasses of soda a day, a Gallup survey indicates.

Each 20-ounce serving of regular soda contains up to 15 added teaspoons of sugar, and nutritionist Margo Gladding says many drinkers don't even know it.

"People are drinking them in excess and they are getting extra calories that ultimately harm their health," she says, citing an increased risk of cardiovascular problems, obesity, diabetes, tooth decay and bone loss.

Next month, New York City is set to put into effect a first-in-the-nation cap on the size of soft drinks. The city Board of Health agreed in September to ban restaurants, delis, movie theaters, sports arenas and many other eateries from selling high-sugar drinks in cups or containers bigger than 16 ounces. The city plans to start enforcing the rule in March but to postpone seeking $200 fines until June.

The mayor of Cambridge, Mass., has already proposed a similar measure, saying she was inspired by New York's move. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently filed a petition urging the Food and Drug Administration to set safe limits for the amount of added high-fructose corn syrup in beverages.

Citing studies that suggest sugary drinks are a driving factor in the nation's growing girth, New York City officials portray the restriction as a portion-control tactic that will help people cut calories without stopping anyone who actively wants more soda from buying another.

The opponents say that it's insulting to suggest consumers don't know what they're doing, and that it's unfair to impose a restriction that applies only to some beverages and some establishments. Because of factors including limits on the city's jurisdiction, the rule doesn't cover alcoholic drinks, milkshakes, coffee drinks or unsweetened juices. Nor does it apply to any sugary drinks sold at supermarkets or convenience stores — including the 7-Eleven Big Gulp, which often is Exhibit A in debates about the rise of the supersize.

The business groups say the rule will cost beverage-makers about $600,000 in labeling and other expenses, cut into soda sales that represent about 20 percent of movie theater profits and compel delis and restaurants to make changes ranging from changing inventory to reprinting menus with entree-and-soda deals. They also say eateries affected by the size limit stand to lose business to ones that aren't.

Meanwhile, questions are being raised about the chemicals in diet soda, including concerns that artificially sweetened beverages can actually cause someone to crave sugar-laden foods.

"It is tricking the body into thinking more sugar is actually coming, that addiction of wanting sweet, sweetness is still there," says Gladding, who believes diet soda is just as bad as the full sugar kind, maybe worse.

The American Beverage Association says the industry is working to increase options for consumers, and major companies are campaigning hard against their critics.

Coca-Cola noted it has already made several moves to help customers make better choices, such as putting calorie counts on the front of its cans and bottles in the U.S. Last year, it also started posting calorie information on its vending machines ahead of a regulation that will require soda companies to do so by 2014.

Public concern over the calories in soda is apparent in Coca-Cola's changing business. In North America, all the growth in its soda business over the past 15 years has come from low- and no-calorie drinks, such as Coke Zero. Diet sodas now account for nearly a third of its sales in the U.S. and Canada. Other beverages such as sports drinks and bottled water are also fueling growth.

Even with the growing popularity of diet sodas, however, overall soda consumption in the U.S. has declined steadily since 1998, according to the industry tracker Beverage Digest.

More information:
Agree? » The New Yorker: Downsizing Supersize
Disagree? » Huffington Post: A Supersized Dud
» Mother Jones: How Our Sodas Got So Huge

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