Pop and Fizzle: The Dirty Politics Behind Soda’s Sweet Facade

Marion Nestle’s new book looks at the fight over soft drinks’ place in American diets and culture.
(Photo: Flickr)
Dec 2, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

With Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror, we are now officially in the holiday season. In this uncertain world of ours, that easily translates into indulging in food and drink that is comforting and, above all, familiar. Take Coke, the beverage of choice of generations before us and a product manufactured and marketed by a company so powerful that it’s even responsible for the Santa Claus we know today.

“Coca-Cola bottlers had always known that they had to snare the next generation of drinkers early, regardless of the taboo on direct advertising to those below twelve. Now that children could find Coca-Cola in their refrigerators [in the late 1920s], the Company went after the school-age market as well, though it took care never to show anyone of elementary age actually drinking the beverage,” writes business journalist Mark Pendergrast in the engaging, meticulously researched For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It. “One approach directed at children wound up reshaping American folk culture through the art of Haddon Sundblom,” who created the classic Coke Santa Claus in 1931.

“Sundblom’s Santa was the perfect Coca-Cola man—bigger than life, bright red, eternally jolly, and caught in whimsical situations involving a well-known soft drink as his reward for a hard night’s work of toy delivery,” Pendergrast continues. Every year, the artist created a new version of the Santa-starring Coke ad—and fundamentally changed the popular image of Old Saint Nick in American culture.

“While Coca-Cola has had a subtle, pervasive influence on our culture, it has directly shaped the way we think of Santa,” Pendergrast writes. “Prior to the Sundblom illustrations, the Christmas saint had been variously illustrated wearing blue, yellow, green, or red. In European art, he was usually tall and gaunt, whereas Clement Moore had depicted him as an elf in ‘A Visit From St Nicholas.’ After the soft drink ads, Santa would forever more be a huge, fat, relentlessly happy man with broad belt and black hip boots—and he would wear Coca-Cola red.”

It's an old anecdote about the soft power of soft drinks that’s shown to ring true in a book that sits right next to Pendergrast’s in my library, the recently published (and also meticulously researched) Soda Politics: Taking On Big Soda (and Winning), by Marion Nestle, one of my go-to nutrition authorities. I’ve made this point umpteen times, but it bears repeating: She is in no way related to Nestlé, the multinational food corporation. Not only is Nestle (pronounced “ness-el”) the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, but she’s arguably the most knowledgeable, unflagging, and evenhanded critic of the American food industry working today.

Soda Politics doesn’t have the narrative flow of Pendergrast’s book; rather, it’s an expertly curated catalog of facts (didja know that nearly 2 trillion 12-ounce servings of soda are produced annually?). But like Pendergrast, Nestle provides a master class in big soda–style marketing. “Sodas are astonishing products,” she writes in her introduction. “Little more than flavored sugar water, these drinks cost practically nothing to produce or buy, yet have turned their makers—principally Coca-Cola and PepsiCo—into multibillion-dollar industries with global recognition, distribution, and political power.” While drinking a soda here and there, she notes, presents no real health risks, “many Americans—especially those who are young, members of minority groups, and poor—habitually drink large volumes of soda on a daily basis at great harm to their health.” Hence the need for a company like Coke to hold on to its feel-good, nostalgic image, rather than being painted as a public-health threat.

“The marketing practices of cigarette and soda companies seem eerily familiar,” Nestle continues. “Both aim to sell as much of their products as possible, regardless of health consequences. Both encourage consumption with massive amounts of advertising, much of it aimed at children and low-income groups. Both use philanthropy to community organizations as a means to create goodwill and build brand loyalty. Both lobby Congress and government agencies and spend fortunes to head off unfavorable regulation. Both forge alliances with health organizations and researchers to make the science appear confusing and to silence criticism.”

So why is it, then, that big soda has had such a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year? Well, the public and politicos are finally coming to terms with soda not being what you would call healthy, and general consumption, which skyrocketed through the latter half of the 20th century, is decreasing. Berkeley, California, became the first city in the country to implement a so-called soda tax , in the hopes that, as in Mexico, it would reduce purchases of sweetened beverages. The New York Times nailed Coca-Cola for funding influential researchers who claimed that it doesn’t matter what you eat or drink; it’s exercise that will solve the obesity crisis. Compromising details continue to emerge, and just last week, Coca-Cola’s top science and regulatory officer stepped down.

Even diet soda is in the doldrums. The double whammy of a general decline of soda consumption and consumers’ wariness of artificial sweeteners has caused sales of diet sodas to drop nearly 20 percent over the past five years, according to data from the market research firm Euromonitor. By 2019, sales are projected to fall off by a third since their peak in 2009.

Although Nestle’s book is primarily concerned with carbonated colas made by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, she points out that it’s worth considering the vast array of other sugary drinks available in the marketplace, many of which those two companies also produce. In her universe of sugar-sweetened beverages, she includes energy drinks, sports drinks, fruit drinks, punches, and ades (all made with much less than 100 percent fruit juice), as well as teas, coffees, milks, and waters.

Overall, these drinks contribute a whopping amount of sugar to the American diet, all of it in liquid form, Nestle explains. The percentages were included in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines brochure, and “it is fair to say that drinks with added sugars contributed half the total amount of sugars in American diets in 2010 and apparently still do” (according to the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture). Sigh.

Nestle is foremost an educator and an activist, and Soda Politics is worth its price for the chapters on advocacy alone, from recruiting public health leaders and working from within to protecting public water resources. Not-so-fun fact: According to JP Morgan analysts, the combined direct water use (the amount that goes into a final product) of just five food companies—Nestlé, Unilever, Kraft, Danone, and Coca-Cola—came to nearly 600 billion liters per year, an average of about 95 liters for every single person on the planet. Coca-Cola alone used 288 billion liters of water in 2006, nearly half the total for the five companies (it used more than 305 billion liters of water in 2013). But there are two appendixes that list the principal U.S. groups advocating for healthier beverage choices and campaigns to reduce soda consumption on national, state, and local levels. In other words, we can change things, one Big Gulp at a time.