Soda Makers Get Proactive On Calorie Control

Say what you want about Michael Bloomberg’s initiative to ban the sale of some sodas in containers larger than 16 oz. in some venues in New York City, the proposal last spring got a lot of people talking across the country, the blogosphere and yap-TV. And it got the beverage industry acting, too, it would appear.

“With cities pressing to limit the intake of fattening foods and drinks, the nation's major soda makers will start listing calorie counts on vending machines next year, a move critics said was aimed at averting calls for special taxes and other regulations,” Tiffany Hsu reports in the Los Angeles Times

To wit, America’s largest beverage companies -- Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple Group -- will take part in a new Calories Count Vending Program that will be launched in municipal buildings in Chicago and San Antonio in 2013 and then made available to vending customers nationwide.  



“The cities are vying to see whose workers can make the greatest progress in improving their overall health, determined by a variety of factors, from weight loss to lowering blood pressure, writes Stephanie Strom in the New York Times. “The winning city receives $5 million from the beverage association foundation, and employees can win $1,000 for making the biggest improvements in their health.”

The marketers “will display messages such as ‘Try a Low-Calorie Beverage’ and add calorie labels to selection buttons on vending machines ... in January,” according to Mike Esterl’s report in the Wall Street Journal. “The machines will start being introduced in other cities in 2013, part of a national rollout expected to take a couple years.”

“Check then Choose” is another nudge toward exercising personal judgment that will be exhibited on the machines, according to an American Beverage Association press release that points out that “the non-alcoholic beverage industry has a proven track record of providing meaningful solutions to help reduce obesity” including its School Beverage Guidelines.   

Seventy-nine percent of the respondents to a poll on, Dr. Mehmet Oz’ healthcare Q&A site, said last week that New York City's “soda ban was too much government intervention.” Forget the fact that the measure was not a “ban on soda” at all but rather a “ban on large servings of soda and other sugary drinks at restaurants, delis, sports arenas, and movie theaters,” as one of the site’s bloggers, Dr. Sharon Orrange, correctly points out

And let’s ignore the many exceptions to the “soda ban,” including diet sodas and any drink that’s at least 70% juice. Truth is, people feel don’t like the government telling them what to do, although they’ll begrudgingly accept the need for speed limits (for other people).

Similarly, 64% of respondents to a Reuters poll in June and 60% of those polled by the New York Times in August thought the ban serving sizes larger that 16 oz. in food venues was a “bad idea,” as the latter put it. Even über-liberal Jon Stewart poked ridicule at the measure. 

Still, the city’s Board of Health passed the measure overwhelmingly last month. Some observers wary of the effectiveness of the perceived crimp on individual rights suggest that, say, an increase in taxes on sugary drinks would be a more appropriate way to not only “change behavior” but also help “pay for health education and medical costs,” as Maddie Oatman writes in Mother Jones

When the USDA crunched the numbers (PDF) on a 20% increase in cost of sugared beverages in 2010 study, it found that more expensive drinks could spur an average loss of 3.8 pounds a year for adults and 4.5 pounds a year for kids,” Oatman points out.

Still, some of the most ardent critics of the food and beverage industry seemed heartened by yesterday’s developments. 

“People tend to over-consume products with sugar and, for these companies to be doing something that may decrease consumption of their sugared beverages, surprises me,” Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, tells the Times’ Strom. “But it does seem to me to be a positive move.” 

The Journal’s Estral reminds us that “McDonald's -- another target of public-health groups -- last month began displaying calorie counts on its menu boards across the country ahead of new U.S. restaurant-labeling requirements expected to take effect by the end of 2013.”

"The industry needs to be proactive on this issue to deter critics," John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, says in a widely published reaction to yesterday’s news. 

“It’s the next step in the evolution of public disclosure,” Morningstar analyst Thomas Mullarkey tells Bloomberg’s Duane D. Stanford in citing nutrition labels and front-of-package calorie citations as past examples. “It helps consumers while appeasing political powers and regulators, so soft drink companies are seen as encouraging healthy decisions.”

It’s also a demonstration of a fundamental law of physics: Actions beget reactions.

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