Michelle Obama launched ‘Let’s Move’ in the US last week, a campaign she says intends to end childhood obesity within a generation. It’s a bold aim in a country where a third of kids are overweight, but the plan takes a broad-based approach, embracing healthy eating as well as physical activity, while it deftly avoids inflaming any specific industry sector.
Widely praised across the States for its emphasis on small changes at school, community and family levels – rather than taking a preaching or dictatorial angle – it was a no-brainer for the beverage industry to get on board. And it did, pouncing on the media with statements of support, and announcing its own coordinated initiative to display calorie counts prominently front-of-pack, on soda fountains and selection buttons of vending machines.
Now that’s great, but sometimes industry initiatives can be hard to swallow if they aren’t washed down with a little skepticism – and we have yet to see exactly what ‘prominently’ means for those calorie-count panels. Let’s hope they are sufficiently prominent to give consumers an at-a-glance reference point. Recent research has suggested that on-menu calorie listings mean parents choose lower calorie meals for their kids. Following that logic, the initiative has the potential to make a real difference.
An industry-led plan to influence drinks choices could be seen as a rather daring move. But in a sector that seeks to stay profitable like any other, why should it introduce measures that ostensibly aim to reduce consumption?
Well, it hasn’t. Put a thirsty person in front of a refrigerator full of drinks, and they’re likely to come away with something, even if it’s a lower calorie version of the same drink. And the calorie labeling scheme certainly carries a degree of reputation maintenance (and repair) for the industry.
After all, it has been repeatedly put forward as a target of blame for childhood obesity, with some pointing to studies that estimate beverages contribute 10 to 15 percent of calories consumed by American children and adolescents. It is habitually compared to the tobacco industry in terms of the health impacts, social and medical costs caused by obesity, and the idea of a soda tax to reduce consumption is currently being aired in several states and countries around the world.
In turn, the industry has historically been a vocal proponent of personal choice. Sure, no one is forcing soft drinks down our unwilling gullets, and kids don’t learn their habits in a bubble; it’s unrealistic to insist that children stick to water and milk, for example, if their parents keep two-liter bottles of Coke in the fridge.
The reality is that most of us choose to drink soft drinks at least occasionally and, unlike smoking, there’s no harm in that. It is excess that causes problems.
Paradoxically, as long as the calorie-labeling scheme is an honest attempt to cut US consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks, the industry has everything to gain.
Of course it doesn’t want to lose customers. If kids stop drinking so much sugary soda, it will be hoping they’ll choose another of its products instead – perhaps a diet version, a drink sweetened with stevia, juice, or bottled water. It may not always be the water or milk advocated by nutritionists, but for millions of overweight children it’s a step in the right direction.
In the UK, soda makers are taking a different approach to the obesity issue, with PepsiCo announcing it intends to increase the bottle size of its sugar-free colas, PepsiMax and Diet Pepsi, “to encourage consumers to move away from its sugar variant in the UK”. The new 600ml bottles will retail at the same price as their 500ml sugar-containing cousins.
It’s this kind of creative thinking that the beverage industry needs. There will always be some for whom the industry is an eternal bad guy, who will condemn artificial sweeteners, and some have targeted natural zero-calorie sweeteners like stevia as highly refined.
But the beverage industry’s decision to back Mrs. Obama could be genuinely helpful in the fight against obesity – and it is most definitely shrewd.
So are the industry’s words more bubble than bite? I don’t think so. At a time when individuals are more willing than ever to hold industry accountable, major drinks players would be wise to ensure their actions don’t give critics anything to sink their teeth into.
Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef.