“I recently started a new job where my colleagues drink a few sodas a day. Now I’ve gotten an appetite for the stuff, especially when I can get my hands on a Coke produced in Mexico—it’s made the old-fashioned way, with cane sugar. How bad is that, really?”
First, let me point out that the USDA has a word for your work environment: obesogenic. The agency’s statistics show that soda (along with energy and sports drinks) is the fourth largest source of calories consumed by adults. Who should know better.
Public-health advocates like Michael Jacobson, cofounder and executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, will be the first to tell you that soft-drink calories are empty—that is, lacking in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients.
(If you’re looking for healthy, refreshing summer beverage ideas, by the way, join CSPI on July 26, 1 p.m. ET, for a #FoodFri tweetchat.)
And nutrition and medical experts, conventional and alternative alike, will tell you that soda sweetened any which way is bad for you on a number of different levels. Sugary soft drinks can rot your teeth, make you fat, and may lead to everything from “caffeinism” (shaky nerves and insomnia) to an increased risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. There are concerns about caffeine content, caramel coloring, additives such as BVO, and BPA-lined soda cans. And according to a just-published piece in the journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, findings from various studies show that the artificial sweeteners in diet sodas may work counterintuitively to induce obesity-linked “metabolic derangements.”
Those among us who are anthropologically inclined tend to view a can or bottle of soda as an instantly recognizable symbol of everything that is wrong with Western civilization as we know it. I doubt soda deserves all the credit (are reality shows getting trashier, or is it just me?), but the invasiveness, for instance, of Coca-Cola—the world’s most widely distributed single-consumer product—is enough to fill anyone with dismay, if not outright alarm.
Or inspiration, if you look at works by artists from Salvador Dalí to Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, whose painting Coca-Cola  [Large Coca-Cola] fetched just over $35 million at auction in 2010. To Warhol, Coca-Cola represented democracy with a small d. “What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest,” the artist wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, published in 1975. “You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the president knows it, the bum knows it and you know it.”
Just five years later, the cane sugar in Coke was cut with ultraprocessed high-fructose corn sugar (HFCS). By 1984—conspiracy theorists love this part—Coke in the United States was sweetened completely by HFCS. I know this because for the past few weeks, my main nonfiction reading has been the revised and expanded third edition of For God, Country & Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It, by historian and journalist Mark Pendergrast. (Full disclosure: We’re tangentially related by marriage, but I barely know the guy.)
As far as Mexican Coke is concerned, I’m not alone in thinking cane sugar gives the soft drink a cleaner sweetness than HFCS does. But one unintended consequence of the current demonization of HFCS is the presumption that other sweeteners are healthier in comparison. (I’ve addressed added sugars and sugar substitutes in previous TakePart columns.)
Pendergrast wrote that in 2011 Mexico led the world in per capita consumption of Coca-Cola products. “Perhaps not coincidentally, Mexico also had the world’s highest obesity rate,” he added. And we aren’t exactly slackers. “Though American soft drink consumption peaked in 1998, Americans still drank an average of 714 eight-ounce servings of soft drinks per year in 2011—that’s about two drinks per day for every man, woman, and child in the United States.”
In Pendergrast’s updated edition, he chronicled the increasing Coca-Colonization of the world, alleged conspiracies with paramilitary groups, the soda tax wars, and how Big Soda is evolving in response to public scrutiny. His take on the obesity epidemic is given added heft (sorry) by the fact that since the previous edition of FGC&C, he wrote Inside the Outbreaks, a history of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), the disease detectives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Much of that book focused on infectious diseases,” he explained, “but near the end I observed that heart disease and stroke—both associated with obesity, along with diabetes—accounted for a third of all deaths around the world. Humanity’s worst problems are self-inflicted.”
I’ll second that. Yes, marketing is pervasive, and soft-drink lobbies spend millions to protect the sales of their products. But get a grip. If giving up soda entirely is inconceivable, then think of it as a once-a-week (or month) treat instead of a beverage to be tossed back at mealtimes or throughout the day. And for those of you who wonder if carbonated water in general is harmful, I’ll address that topic next week.