On both coasts, and in between, the US is awash in soft drinks this election season. In Richmond, California, those who are fighting childhood obesity have put a tax soda tax measure on the November ballot. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has continued his fight against unhealthy eating by instituting a ban on supersize soft drinks. In New York City it is now illegal to sell sweetened beverages of over 16 ounces in restaurants, movie theaters, sports venues, coffee shops, pizza shops, delis, food trucks or street carts. The ban applies to fountain and bottled beverages and includes soda, sweetened coffee drinks and teas, juice drinks, and sports drinks.
The ballot measure, approved by the Richmond City Council, has two parts. One is a tax on soft drinks that would, hopefully, discourage consumption. The other would use the money collected from this tax to create neighborhood gardens, recreation and other youth projects that would help fight childhood obesity.
On both coasts, the beverage industry has pulled out all the stops to fight these initiatives. Groups like New Yorkers for Beverage Choices http://nycbeveragechoices.com/
has created a blog and full fledged campaign arguing that the ban on sodas is dramatic curtailment of the freedom of Americans to choose whatever they want to drink, wherever they want to drink it, no matter the consequences – social or individual --of that choice. In Richmond, an industry sponsored group called Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes has spent tens of thousands to fight the tax and argues that it will harm low income residents, small businesses and insert City hall into personal decisions. http://www.norichmondbeveragetax.com/
The beverage industry insists that opponents of sugary, obesity creating beverages are attacking the poor and overweight Americans who these measures try to help. The not so subtle subtext is that a bunch of rich, elitist white people are trying to dictate to low income people and minorities. These elitists are the foodie equivalents of the Grinch who stole Christmas. Looking down on the poor from their perches far up in the culinary stratosphere, they are out to impose their own priorities on others and deprive them of their pleasure in life.
Well, anyone who looks at the facts about obesity creating food and drink carefully will discover that the folks launching the fat attack on minority and low income residents is the food and beverage industry not the people who are trying to curtail its policies and practices. Just as the tobacco industry manipulated the nicotine content of cigarettes to make them more addictive, the American food and beverage industry has been selling products that exploit knowledge of how the brain works to deliberately increase the intake of food and drink. The industry’s products are not designed to be nourishing but rather to encourage overeating and obesity. Why? It’s simple, if people eat more, the industry earns more.
Anyone who thinks otherwise should take a look at David A. Kessler’s recent book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. Dr. Kessler, who served as the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under the first President Bush and then President Bill Clinton was also the Dean of the University of California at San Francisco Medical School. In his excellent book, Kessler documents how the food industry in this country combines fat, sugar, and salt in ways that “override the wisdom of the body.” Until very recently, the body’s wisdom maintained a balance, or homeostatsis, that regulated so that food intake matched energy output. Most people didn’t eat when they weren’t hungry, and when they did eat, the brain carefully calibrated food intake so that most people maintained a steady and healthy weight.
Scientists have discovered that all that changed with the advent of chain restaurants like McDonalds, and The Cheesecake Factory, and sugary, fatty food retailers like Cinnabon (to name only a few) and soft drink companies like Pepsi and Coca Cola. By layering fat on fat, adding loads of sugar, and way too much salt, the industry has developed an almost foolproof formula that hooks into the body’s stimulus reward system so that many processed foods and drinks function just like drugs or alcohol to produce addiction. Fatty, sugary, salty foods – what Kessler calls “hyperpalatable foods,” target opiod receptors in the brain to produce a pleasurable, rewarding sensation. People eat the food and feel pleasure, calm. “At least in the short term,” Kessler writes,” they make us feel better.” Problem is, this feeling better sensation makes us want more and more and more. Once triggered, the opiod mechanisms “interfere with a phenomenon known as ‘taste-specific satiety. ‘” Certain kinds of foods, designed in certain specific ways, override our good sense and we eat more and more and more.
The food and beverage industry does all this quite deliberately. The Cheesecake Factory, for example, loads its food with fat and salt and then adds sugar because throwing in a bunch of sugar into your chicken entrée will make people come back for more. Similarly, the industry creates variety – dozens of kinds of cheesecake rather than just plain and chocolate, chicken tenders and chicken wings – because variety makes people want more. Through what’s known as “dynamic contrast,” the right combinations of flavors and textures increase overeating and drinking. So we don’t just have coke, or cappuccino, we have Sprite and Fanta and Starbucks frappuccinos.
Scientists at Oregon Research Institute have used brain scans to document the fact that children who simply looked at pictures of chocolate milkshakes and then later consumed them need larger doses to feel satisfied. Like drug addicts, smaller doses lead to larger and larger ones.
According to recent study of more than 33,000 Americans consuming sugary drinks is particularly problematic for people who are genetically predisposed to gaining weight. Other recent studies have documented that when children and teenagers are offered calorie free drinks instead of soft drinks, they gain less weight. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/22/health/avoiding-sugary-drinks-improves-childrens-weight-in-2-studies.html
The beverage industry claims that it is simply giving consumers what they want. What it neglects to tell us is that it – along with the fast food and chain restaurant industries – has created the very cravings it purports to be simply satisfying. It also tries to conceal the way it deliberately takes advantage of the increasingly harried American lifestyle to produce even more overeating and drinking. Americans now work more than any other country on earth, have hardly any vacation or family time, and since the Great Recession experience higher levels of stress. The food and beverage industry takes advantage of people’s yearning for relief and reward to encourage the intake of food as what people perceive to be a well deserved indulgence. “Among people who experience conditioned hyper-eating, emotional states often heighten the power of cues, overpower executive control, and intensify the drive to eat.” Kessler writes. Like those who use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, people who are stressed are more prone to overeat to feel better. “Because a cookie makes me feel better, it’s easy to develop the habit of seeking it out when I’m sad or angry. Over time, as neural pathways link the change in my mood with the experience of eating the cookie, the sensation grows stronger.”
Combine stress with too much fat, sugar, and salt and you have the perfect obesity storm. Add to this portion size – the supersize drink, Mac, fries, or increasing average plate size in almost any American restaurant and the storm becomes a hurricane. One reason the food and beverage industry hates bans on supersizing is that this is central to its profitability. By supersizing your plate, your portion, your soft drink, the industry convinces you that you are getting a bargain. “People also want to feel they’re getting a good deal.” Kessler explains. “For a marginal added cost, a restaurant can serve portions large enough to allow customers to eat plenty and still leave with leftovers.” Problem is, a lot of people were raised to clean their plates and even those who take home doggie bags (oh if only they were for real dogs!) tend to eat more off a huge plate than they would have if the portion were normal. Indeed, new studies have predicted that in the next few years over 40 percent of Americans will be obese, with even higher rates in some states.
A study in Health Affairs in 2009 estimated that the financial toll of obesity is over $150 billion a year. This leaves out the significant toll in increased diabetes, heart disease, stroke and many other problems.
Reading Kessler’s book one wants to weep not eat. (MacMillan will publishing a version intended for young people entitled “Your Food Is Fooling You: How Your Brain is Hijacked by Sugar, Fat and Salt,” later this fall.) The facts make a mockery of the beverage industry’s contention that it is on the side of the poor, minorities or normal red-blooded American liberties.
The ban on supersize sugary drinks in New York and the proposed soda tax and Richmond are just a finger in the dike of a huge epidemic. Anyone who cares about the health and well being of Americans, whether rich or poor, should support them. And we should treat the claim that the beverage industry is on the side of the poor and minorities with the derision it deserves.