The Shady Politics of Big Soda

People are drinking less liquid sugar than in previous decades, and the soda industry is doing everything it can to get back in the game.


Did your grandparents ever tell stories of how soda used to cost a nickel, and was served in a small, 8-ounce glass bottle, typically enjoyed on Saturdays as an afternoon treat?

Well, those days died quickly.

Over the span of the last century—particularly from the 1950s into the first 10 years of the new millennium—soda will go down in the history books as a driving force in the obesity epidemic. We demonize fat, but sugar is probably the bigger threat. I’d go so far as to coin this period “the years of liquid sugar”—aka, when big soda won.

But in 2015, liquid sugar may have met its match. A new culture of health is booming, and has been for the past few years. It’s one where powerhouse health advocates, entire cities (Berkeley, San Francisco, New York City), and the media finally understand the effects liquid sugar plagues on the body and brain.

More importantly, we understand the arsenal—marketing, lobbying, and philanthropy that big soda companies have used to cast a spell on society, enchanting the masses to consume what once was a special occasion 8-ounce bottle of soda pop, into a daily addiction.

“[Soda companies] are scrambling to figure out what to do,” says Marion Nestle, a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, whose new book Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning) comes out October 5.

Nevertheless, the big players in the game—Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, backed by the American Beverage Association and the sugar industry—are doing everything they can, like shifting blame for obesity away from bad diets, to prevent sales from falling even flatter. But sales have been falling flat for the last decade.

“The word is out: drinking sugar in liquid form is not a good idea,” Nestle says. “The publicity given to Coca-Cola’s funding of researchers was a revelation to lots of people. They were shocked that a company as well known as Coca-Cola would do such a thing.”

In case you missed it, Nestle is referring to a recent analysis of beverage studies published in the journal PLOS Medicine, as pointed out recently in The New York Times, that studies funded by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the American Beverage Association, and the sugar industry are five times more likely to find that there is no link between soda consumption and weight gain.

“The New York City Health Department has a poster campaign that lays out the relationship between physical activity and diet: you have to walk three miles from Union Square in Manhattan to Brooklyn to work off the calories in one 20-ounce soda,” says Nestle.

Nestle tracks both the studies whose findings favor the food sponsor, and those that go the other way.

“I have been tracking studies funded by food companies and posting them on my blog,, every time I have five. I’ve been doing this since March this year and so far have posted 65 studies, all with results that favor the sponsor,” explains Nestle. “Despite my pleas to readers to send in studies that don’t produce favorable results, I only have three. This is a bigger gap than is found in systematic studies of industry funding, but not much bigger.”

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But how corruptible are the academic, research, and scientific communities to make the (seemingly preposterous) “science-based claim” that exercise is more important than diet? Even the layman can tell you diet affects the waistline more than pumping iron.

“The recipients of soda industry funding deny that it has any effect on their design of research or its interpretation, but the evidence suggests otherwise,” Nestle says. “Most research funded by the soda industry produces results favorable to sodas as benign factors in health. Research funded independently comes to the opposite conclusion. A coincidence? Hardly.”

If it’s already the beginning of the end for big soda, why write a book about the soda industry?

“It’s a perfect model system—synecdoche (I love that word), the one standing for the whole. If you understand how soda companies operate, you understand how all food corporations market, use philanthropy, lobby, and use the political system to protect sales of their products,” Nestle says. “Soda companies are not social service agencies. Like all other corporations, their job is to sell product, meet growth targets, and send returns to investors. It’s easier for people to understand how the system works with a soda company than with an oil or chemical company.”

And for those who may not be up to speed on the big soda wars, or may not care, Nestle approaches the new book so that people can parlay the lessons learned across the other health issue about which someone may feel more passionately.

“Read the chapters about marketing to children, minorities, and people in developing countries and apply the advocacy lessons to issues they care about,” she says.

Tackling big soda is still on the forefront for health advocates and will remain at the top of the public health agenda for the U.S. at the municipal and state level.

“We’ve had one successful tax election in Berkeley, California—by a 76 percent majority, no less. The one in San Francisco had a 56 percent majority, but needed two-thirds to pass,” Nestle says. “I’m pretty sure the San Francisco people are gearing up to try again and other places will too. At some point, the soda industry will get tired of spending millions to defeat such measures and give up.”