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The bitter fight over sugary drinks

Marion Nestle's Soda Politics on how to fight behemoth that is the soft drink industry and achieving that feat of registering a win for good health advocates is timely


Uttaran Das Gupta
Taking on Big Soda [and Winning]
Marion Nestle
Oxford University Press
508 pages; Rs 676

Last month, Coca-Cola suspended bottling operations at three plants in India, including in Rajasthan. This plant has been in the eye of protests by local farmers, who complained that the company was using depleting ground water reserves in the parched north-western state. Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages, a subsidiary of The Coca-Cola Co, however, has claimed that it was a responsible corporate citizen, harvesting rainwater and encouraging farmers to use drip irrigation, which is a more efficient method of watering crops than traditional alternatives.

While the debate over corporate ethics will continue, the country's Rs 14,000-crore soft drinks industry is facing other challenges. In the Budget for 2016-17, the Union government raised excise duty on soft drinks to 21 per cent from 18 per cent. This is the second year that the sector has faced a levy increase and, this time it will affect the price by one to two per cent, in turn hitting sales. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, the country's two major soft drink producers, are already reeling from single-digit volume growth, with more and more customers moving to healthier drinks.

In this context, Marion Nestle's new book on how to fight the behemoth that is the soft drink industry and achieving that feat of registering a win for good health advocates is timely. The Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at the New York University, Ms Nestle has been at the forefront of the fight for food choice, healthy living and against obesity in the US since before publishing her breakout book, Food Politics (2002). Now, she focuses her attention on the despicable marketing practices soft drink companies employ to expand sales and profit at the cost of global health.

At the start of her book, Ms Nestle writes about her fascination with soft drinks, or sodas: "Sodas are astonishing products. Little more than flavoured 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." She also writes about why advocacy against soft drinks is necessary: "An occasional sugary drink is hardly a health concern. But 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."

Soft drink companies, Ms Nestle demonstrates in her book, target these vulnerable groups. In the chapter "Starting Early: Marketing to Infants, Children, and Teens", she links the habit of TV watching and soft drink consumption by children: "Soda drinking is so closely linked to watching television that its consumption can be predicted by formula: the probability that children will consume sodas up to three times per week rises 50 per cent for every hour a day they watch television, and by 60 per cent if they are watching commercials."

Like everything else in this wonderfully erudite book, this information has been sourced from a scholarly study - one that goes on to claim: "Nine out of 10 food advertisements shown during Saturday morning children's television programming are for foods high in fat, sodium, or added sugars, or low in nutrients." But this book is also about the solutions, which, for Ms Nestle, lies in advocacy. In subsequent chapters, she outlines tried and tested tactics used by public health advocates and campaigners in the US - and can be adopted by their counterparts in the other countries.

The breadth of the book's ambition is evident in Ms Nestle incorporating voices from within the soft drink industry into conversations about how to promote healthy living. In the course of committed advocacy, it is often easier to aim one's attacks at the monoliths of corporate structures, but it is more difficult to deal with individuals. One of the most interesting individuals in Soda Politics is Dr Derek Yach, a South African health professional who supervised a 2003 consultation report for the World Health Organization (WHO) "aimed at establishing a research basis for a global strategy to reduce obesity." As expected, he ran into trouble with "big soda" and was forced to quit his job as director of non-communicable diseases at the WHO, even as his report was being published.

Then, in 2007, he joined PepsiCo as the vice-president of global health policy. Next year, he published an editorial in British journal Public Health Nutrition explaining the move, and PepsiCo Chief Executive Office Indra Nooyi explained the hiring as: "We have asked Derek to change this company; in five years we want to have most of our product line meet the international standards supporting life-long health." So how successful was Dr Yach? About 65 per cent, he claims. While he did manage to steer PepsiCo towards producing healthier alternatives for soft drinks, with the global recession impacting profits, the company had to focus more and more on its core products, even as Dr Yach left for other engagements. This incident illustrates the complexity of the battle and how people inside and outside the industry must come together to make it a success.

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First Published: Mar 22 2016 | 9:30 PM IST

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