This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Souring on Sweet: The Great Soda Wars, Part 1, first released on December 4, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
DORIA ROBINSON: Well, at least half the kids start their day with a Coke and a pack of hot fries. Like, that’s breakfast. And then throughout the day, drinking soda like it’s water. Those empty calories have an enormous cumulative effect on our society. We are paying the price in the medical bills and, you know, all of the kind of health outcomes in the community.
ED RENZI: Well, this is a classic socialist government. Stick your hand in a citizen’s pocket while they’re trying to find a refreshing drink, pull the money out, and then condemn the citizen for drinking sugar and trying to save their life by saving them from sugar.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Wow, that’s a roller coaster.
NICOLA TWILLEY: It’s the pro-soda tax anti-soda tax rollercoaster ride!
GRABER: Some people think soda taxes are absolutely necessary, some people think they’re basically the devil’s handiwork.
TWILLEY: That rollercoaster ride—that is basically today’s fun-filled Gastropod episode. And actually, it’s the next episode too. That’s right, we have got a special two-part series for you, the first two-parter we’ve ever done.
GRABER: We, of course, are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And for the next two episodes, we are going to be exploring our fatal attraction to sweetness—and one of the best or maybe, depending on who you listen to, the worst tools we have for cutting our sugar consumption. Soda taxes.
GRABER: First, what’s the science behind why love that delicious sweet taste—and the science behind why kids crave desserts that seem actually sickly sweet to us adults?
TWILLEY: And if sugar tastes so good, can it really be so bad? What is the science on how our sugar consumption affects our health?
GRABER: And why might soda be the worst form of sugar delivery of all?
TWILLEY: Plus, if the goal is to cut sugar consumption, are soda taxes really the best way to do it? It’s a huge, huge story, filled with fascinating science, forgotten history, and even a little good old-fashioned blackmail. Today’s episode is part 1 of the great sugar sweetened beverage wars.
TWILLEY: Today, the average American eats a lot of sugar. Exactly how much is a little tricky to pin down—even different government departments publish different numbers.
GRABER: But overall we eat way more sugar today per day, per year, than we did in the past. A couple centuries ago, we ate only two pounds of sugar a year. And now we on average are likely eating that much in only two weeks!
TWILLEY: Part of the reason we eat so much sugar is that we love it. We’re set up, biologically, to love it.
JULIE MENNELLA: It’s pleasure. And we are hedonic animals that like pleasure. and one sees that at a very early age, even in a child. You really don’t have to learn to like sweets. It’s there.
GRABER: Julie Mennella is a sweet connoisseur. She’s actually a developmental psychologist, and she studies all things sweet at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.
MENNELLA: For sweet, many would argue that it is our signal—thinking of the environment in which we evolved in, it’s our signal for energy or calories.
TWILLEY: This is the theory—that we evolved to get super stoked when something tasted sweet because it meant that we had hit the calorie jackpot. And, just like hitting the lottery jackpot today, that was a rare event for our ancient ancestors.
MENNELLA: You know think of the environment in which we came from, if you will. And we didn’t evolve in an environment of manufactured sweets or added sugars. Our sweet quality came from mother’s milk, from fruit, nectar, honey. That probably were the primary sources.
GRABER: And, of course, as Julie pointed out, we love it. We’re wired to love it.
MENNELLA: For sweet in general there are areas of the brain that receive information that are associated with pleasure and reward, often leading that many to say that sweet is our oldest reward.
TWILLEY: There’s been a lot of debate recently around whether sugar is actually addictive. Researchers have shown that in some conditions, lab rats pursue sugar over cocaine, and they’ve found that sugar seems to cause the same type of symptoms of dependence and withdrawal as addictive drugs.
GRABER: But researchers are careful not to say that sugar is genuinely addictive to us humans—they can’t really say that people who love it are dependent on it and engage in risky behavior to get it, the way they do with drugs. Julie agrees that it’s complicated.
MENNELLA: One would argue, could foods ever be addictive, per se? Because it’s something that you need and it’s calories. But many drugs of abuse are actually cooperating in these brain pathways that were designed for sweet. When you taste something sweet, there are chemicals in the brain—dopamine being one of them—that are released in certain areas of the brain that are also activated with certain drugs of abuse.
TWILLEY: Basically, sugar—that sweet taste—it’s powerful stuff.
GRABER: So, okay, we adults adore sugar. But kids love it even more than we do.
MENNELLA: I think all you have to be is an observer of human behaviour and you know the children like sweets.
TWILLEY: Julie and her colleagues at the Monell Center have done a number of scientific studies looking at exactly how much kids favor sugar.
MENNELLA: What we consistently find over the years is that children will most prefer a sweeter solution than adults. We all like sweet, but it’s to a different degree.
GRABER: But how much sweeter exactly?
MENNELLA: So the most preferred level sweetness on average for an adult is the of a can of cola. Let’s say you’ve got a can of cola. Add seven cubes of sugar to it, and that’s a child.
TWILLEY: I can’t even imagine how crazily sweet that would taste. But Julie’s tried it.
MENNELLA: Of course, yeah.
TWILLEY: What does it taste like?
MENNELLA: As one would expect, very sweet [LAUGHS]
GRABER: Kids are super sensitive to even slight differences in sweet. Julie’s tested this with blueberries.
TWILLEY: Different varieties of blueberry have very tiny differences in their levels of sugar, just naturally. Julie’s colleagues measured these differences in the lab, and then Julie fed the blueberries to a group of volunteers.
MENNELLA: And we had adults and children, a variety of methods. I always like to ask the child the question a number of different ways, whether they picked which one they liked the best, whether they rank them, which one they wanted to take home.
GRABER: So when kids and grown-ups could choose from blueberries that had the same sugar content but maybe slightly different textures, there was no real difference in what both groups chose.
MENNELLA: But when there was a slight difference in the sugar content, children really went for the ones that were sweeter. Where adults were probably were picking up other cues or liking a blueberry for other reasons whether it was texture the crunch.
TWILLEY: If you’re a kid, sweetness is just the most important quality in a blueberry—or anything else. And there’s a very simple reason why sweet matters to kids more than it does to grown-ups.
MENNELLA: So you see children are attracted to that which they need. They’re growing. They need the energy. And then when growth has stopped, you actually can see that children start preferring lower levels. You know, it’s often fascinated me where many will say how their children changed during college. You know, obviously there’s a lot of social changes that are occurring. but I think that there may also be something biological.
GRABER: Julie’s tested this, too.
MENNELLA: It was first done at the University of Washington in which they measured sweet preference in children, and then also collected urine and measured a biomarker for bone growth. And then several years later we did a similar study.
GRABER: And they found that when that biomarker in urine shows that children are growing the most intensely, they also crave sweet the most intensely. And then when their growth stops—in adolescence—so does that overwhelming obsession with extra high levels of sweet.
TWILLEY: None of this would be anything other than interesting science, if it wasn’t for the fact that we now live in a world that is super sweet compared to the world we evolved in. And so kids, who are biologically programmed to crave sugar—they can eat of a lot of it. More of it than they actually need. And they do.
MENNELLA: From the age of two, an American is more likely to eat a manufactured sweet on a given day than a fruit or vegetable.
GRABER: Steve Gortmaker studies the implications of what kids are eating today at the Harvard School of Public Health. And, based on his research, he can predict what this means for kids when they grow up.
STEVE GORTMAKER: Like, we projected 59 percent of today’s two-year-olds will have obesity when they’re 35. That’s where we’re headed.
TWILLEY: 59 percent. That is a truly shocking statistic.
GRABER: And horrifying. Because it’s not just that they’ll be heavier. There are a lot of health problems that come along with that. Joint problems. Higher risk of Type 2 diabetes, higher risk of certain kinds of cancer, higher risk of cardiovascular diseases like strokes and heart attacks.
TWILLEY: So, some of you will have heard stuff in the media about whether rising rates of obesity are even real, and if they’re real, whether that’s something we should even be worried about. Here’s where we are on that. Yes, different individuals can be healthy at different weights.
GRABER: No, we should definitely not be body shaming anyone. Anyone.
TWILLEY: And yes, obesity is measured using a flawed system—BMI, or Body Mass Index—that doesn’t account for the difference in weight between muscles and fat, for example.
GRABER: But still, there is a scientific consensus here. Rising rates of obesity are real, they are a problem right now, and they’ll mean rising health problems down the line.
TWILLEY: And Julie’s concern is that we’re setting the next generation up for these problems—and actually, that today’s sugar-filled environment is reprogramming them to consume more sugar even as adults.
MENNELLA: So children are learning. And they’re learning what a food should taste like.
GRABER: As Julie said, today’s two-year-olds are more likely to eat a sweetened cookie or candy or extra sweet juice than to eat a piece of fruit. So she’s studying what impact this will have on the foods they prefer in the future.
MENNELLA: You know many consider that some of these added sugars are almost like supernormal stimuli. And there’s basic research and animal models that would suggest this. It’s the type of studies that we’re trying to do now with children to see how they learn, how does exposure affect the level of sweetness they like.
TWILLEY: What makes this especially hard is, given how much kids biologically just love sweet, and how happy it makes them, and how much sugar there is all around them—how can a parent possibly deny that pleasure to their kids?
MENNELLA: So I think there are many people that are looking at this question. And I leave it to those minds to come up with a solution.
TWILLEY: Ok, so let’s see what those minds are thinking.
GRABER: In theory, one thing we could do, the most simple thing? Just ban sugary foods.
BARRY POPKIN: We can’t ban them. We can’t ban food. The problem is a little food is OK for you, a lot of food is bad for you.
TWILLEY: Phew. Thank you, Barry. It would be a sad world indeed without the occasional sweet treat. That’s Barry Popkin, he’s an economist and nutritionist at UNC Chapel Hill.
GRABER: So—you can’t ban sugary foods. But maybe you can make it a little harder for people to eat them.
TWILLEY: But there’s sugar in everything—bread, and crackers, and ketchup. So nutritionists and economists and public health folks, they’ve chosen one particular food to go after.
SARA BLEICH: So beverages, sugary beverages, are the largest source of added sugar in our diet.
TWILLEY: That’s Sara Bleich, a professor of public health policy at Harvard. And, again, it’s hard to pin down exactly what Americans eat and drink, but researchers believe that roughly half of all the sugar consumed in the U.S.—half!—comes straight from sugary drinks.
GRABER: This isn’t just soda, of course. It’s sports drinks like Gatorade and sweetened teas and energy drinks and any other sweetened drink you can buy. But it seems like roughly a full third of all sugar that is consumed in America comes from sodas. Scientists call this whole category sugar-sweetened beverages. But that’s clunky—sorry, Nicky, not a great title for the show—so we’re just going to lump it all together and call it soda.
TWILLEY: There are regional differences in what a soda is called—I grew up calling them fizzy drinks, and I kind of love “pop” as a term—but soda is what we’re using this episode, so deal with it.
GRABER: Everyone knows that sodas have sugar in them. But it’s kind of shocking just how much sugar there is in a normal 12-ounce can of Coke or Pepsi.
TWILLEY: That one can? It has ten teaspoons of sugar. For me, it’s still kind of hard to picture how much that is, but here’s an experiment you can do to get a sense. Put 12 oz of water in a glass—that’s just a cup and a half—and then add ten teaspoons of sugar, and then try to drink it.
GRABER: We did and it is disgustingly sweet. That sweetness gets masked by both the cold temperature and by the fizz. But try a coke warm, or a coke that’s gone flat. And you’ll see. It’s incredibly tooth-numbingly sweet.
TWILLEY: And of course all that sugar makes soda a pretty major problem for public health.
KELLY BROWNELL: Well, the research on this probably goes back about 15 years. But in the past seven years or so the research on this has just become rock solid.
GRABER: Kelly Brownell is director of the World Food Policy Center at Duke University.
BROWNELL: So there are studies using many kinds of methods using different populations as study subjects, and they are pretty uniform in finding that there are significant links between consumption of sugared beverages and important health outcomes—obesity and diabetes in particular. But other health outcomes, pretty scary health outcomes as well. There are some studies not showing this but those tend to be industry-funded studies.
GRABER: We will actually be coming back to those industry-funded studies.
TWILLEY: But wait, there’s more bad news about sodas. Because they’re not just a target because of how many calories they contribute to the average American diet. Turns out, sodas do something a little different to our bodies than other sugary foods—and the science behind that is really fascinating.
GRABER: So soda is different from other sugary foods in one particularly strange way. Kelly told us that people just don’t seem to get as full from soda calories as they do from food calories.
BROWNELL: So let’s just say for example we take half of your audience and and we do an experiment and on the same day half the audience gets whatever they normally eat for lunch. But we add 200 calories to what they normally eat. But it comes in solid form. It could be pizza, doughnuts, or ice cream for that matter, but it’s solid. And then the other half of the audience gets what they normally eat for lunch. They get an additional 200 calories, but it comes in sugared beverages. The ones they got the sugary beverages won’t adjust as well in subsequent meals for the 200 calorie excess because a body doesn’t seem to register the calories as well—it doesn’t seem to feel as full with these calories that are coming through liquids.
GRABER: Richard Mattes has done a bunch of experiments that show this. He’s a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University.
MATTES: Well, we’ve done trials where we manipulate food form from clear liquid to semi-solid to solid foods, and have people consume them in fixed portions.
TWILLEY: And then Rick monitored these people to see how full they felt and how hungry they got afterwards.
MATTES: And the findings consistently demonstrate that the appetitive sensations are least affected by the beverages. That is hunger drops the least, fullness rises the least. And that total daily energy intake goes up more when there is a beverage.
GRABER: Basically, people don’t get full from the calories in soda, not the way they would from solid foods. They eat just as much afterwards as they would otherwise, so they end up with more total calories consumed.
TWILLEY: Amazingly, Rick has found this effect even works just based on whether you believe a food is a solid or a liquid.
MATTES: We did a trial a few years ago where we told people that a food would be a liquid or solid in their stomach after it was consumed.
GRABER: It didn’t matter what they were told—in fact, it was always actually just clear liquid. But if the participants thought they had a solid food in their body, their hunger dropped, their stomachs actually physically stayed full longer. The liquid even took longer to pass through their intestines. Just because they thought it was solid. Rick’s not sure why.
MATTES: I think the mechanistic explanations are not defined in great specificity but it’s clear that we handle liquids and solids very differently, biologically.
TWILLEY: Once again, there’s an evolutionary theory for why the calories in a liquid don’t seem to register the same way as food calories. Our bodies are actually quite finely tuned to measure how many calories we take in—there are lots of different systems keeping track of that, because it’s really important that we get enough calories to survive.
GRABER: But the only real liquid we drank in evolutionary terms that had a lot of calories? That was mother’s milk. And we weren’t drinking it for most of our lives.
MATTES: Beer is only maybe 12,000 years old or so, so in evolutionary time still a very recent phenomenon. But by and large post-weaning we just drank water. And so there was no need to monitor energy in beverage form.
GRABER: And so we don’t seem to have that ability.
TWILLEY: So, up till now, we’ve been talking about sugar in terms of calories—that the main danger of consuming lots of sugar is the excess weight gain. But that’s not actually soda’s only danger.
MALIK: There is independent metabolic effects from those sugars beyond weight. So we have two—there are two pathways.
GRABER: Vasanti Malik is a public health researcher at Harvard.
TWILLEY: The first pathway or problem that Vasanti flagged for us, is kind of obvious when you think about it. When you drink a soda, you are getting just a lot of sugar really, really quickly.
MALIK: So you get spikes in blood glucose and blood blood in insulin. and over time that can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes, and put you on that path to cardio-metabolic dysfunction.
GRABER: And then there’s another problem that’s a particular issue when you get all that sugar at once from soda — the fructose from soda gets broken down in your liver.
MALIK: And when you have too much fructose getting into the liver your body starts creating triglycerides or fats and that contributes to insulin resistance and diabetes again. So it’s really the sugars in these beverages contribute to cardiometabolic risk independent of weight gain.
TWILLEY: So the case is starting to seem stacked against soda. But still, plenty of foods are high in sugar and not a lot else.
BROWNELL: Now the soda companies will often complain that they’re getting picked on unfairly because there are lots of foods contributing to things like obesity and diabetes. and that’s an interesting argument that one can address.
GRABER: But even if most people don’t know all the scientific reasons why soda in particular is bad for us, Kelly says that focusing on sodas still make sense. Because people get that soda has a lot of sugar.
BROWNELL: People understand soda as a category, and they see it as a luxury rather than a necessity.
TWILLEY: And all of this means that soda is officially the target here—mainstream scientists are agreed we should be drinking less of it, particularly kids. So the next question is how to make that happen.
GRABER: Well, there’s one government response that you listeners might have already heard about—you can tax it. This seems like a modern idea, but actually, people first started talking about soda taxes a long time ago, even before scientists alerted us to all these health impacts. Coca-Cola was first taxed in the U.S. during the Spanish-American war at the end of the 1800s to help pay for the war. And it was taxed as a medicine. Because of the kola nut and the caffeine—and, you know, of all the cocaine in the coca leaves.
TWILLEY: Funnily enough, after the war Coke sued the government and won. Their argument? That actually Coca-Cola wasn’t a medicine, it was just a soft drink.
GRABER: A couple decades later, sodas were taxed at 10 percent as part of the Revenue Act of 1918. It was just a move to try to raise money for the government.
TWILLEY: This tax was repealed 3 years later, when government was out of the hole. But it freaked out the soda companies so much that they teamed up to form the American Beverage Association. Remember that name because you’re going to hear it again.
GRABER: The American Beverage Association got pretty powerful, pretty quickly. They kept taxes off the table for decades. There were a couple really small taxes, a penny here, a penny there, but nothing significant.
TWILLEY: But these taxes were all about revenue—about an easy way to raise a little extra cash. That was how people thought of soda taxes until Kelly Brownell started thinking about them in a public health kind of context in the early 1990s.
BROWNELL: The first time I wrote anything that was of a more public nature was an op ed piece in The New York Times in 1994.
GRABER: Kelly was saying that taxing soda could reduce the consumption of soda. Because scientists had finally done the research to see that taxes had done exactly that for tobacco.
TWILLEY: Today, it seems obvious that cigarette taxes are a good idea to reduce smoking and improve public health. But Steve Gortmaker says it didn’t always.
GORTMAKER: Before those went into effect, I remember reading, and people going, are people really going to change their behavior?
TWILLEY: We know now, of course, that as cigarettes were taxed more and more, across the U.S.—well, people did start smoking less. A lot less.
GORTMAKER: You raise the price people buy less and that’s what’s happening here. It’s very predictable.
GRABER: And so public health folks like Kelly thought, great, taxes work. People are smoking less. They’re healthier because of those cigarette taxes. So…
BROWNELL: Why not tax these foods, when tobacco taxes work so well and the soda consumption is having a negative impact on health? So it was a public health argument and partially an economic argument.
TWILLEY: Like we said, Kelly first put out this suggestion—that we could tax soda to improve public health—he put that out in The New York Times in 1994. And people talked about it, but nothing really happened for another fifteen years.
BROWNELL: But then in 2009, things took a different turn. and several things happened. One is that the science became very robust and quite clear that the sodas were having a negative impact. But also at that time governments in the United States were struggling for income because of the economy going so badly. And one way to raise revenue to help with economic things is to increase taxes. And some politicians began thinking of putting in a tax that would have a double benefit—it could raise revenue but also might lower health care costs. And that’s when soda taxes jump back into the picture.
GRABER: As you might remember, these aren’t technically called soda taxes—they’re called sugar sweetened beverage taxes, or SSB taxes. Because they cover all sorts of sugar sweetened beverages. But SSB is just not as fun to say. So, soda taxes it is.
TWILLEY: In New York City at this point, the Mayor was Mike Bloomberg. In 2010, he started pushing hard for a tax on soda, but the problem he came up against was that had to happen at the state level in New York. The city couldn’t go it alone.
GRABER: And that idea was shot down at the state level. But Bloomberg wasn’t done. He’d managed to get the most comprehensive ban on public smoking in the entire country. He banned trans fats. And he knew soda was another big health problem. Here he is in conversation with Charlie Rose.
CHARLIE ROSE: You attract enormous attention for what you’re trying to do in health. There was smoking. There was trans fat. Now there is sugar and sugary drinks. What is this? What is that drives you to try to impose….
BLOOMBERG: If government’s purpose isn’t to improve the health and longevity of its citizens, I don’t know what its purpose is.
TWILLEY: Bloomberg couldn’t legally do a tax. So, in 2012, he came up with an alternative.
NEWS HOST: We’re going to turn now to the looming ban this morning on all supersized sugary drinks. New York City planning to outlaw sales of big sodas and other sweet drinks over a certain size in an effort to curb obesity. It is the first-ever nationwide ban of its kind. And ABC’s Dr. Richard Besser is here with more. And Rich, this is raising a lot of eyebrows.
RICHARD BESSER: It really is. I mean this is big. This is a dramatic measure.
GRABER: What was this big deal? Oh my god—you can’t buy a sweet drink in anything larger than a 16-ounce cup.
BLOOMBERG: Well, the way it would work is simply those organizations—those industries that we regulate, which are restaurants and movie theaters and carts, they would—they can still sell 32 ounces of a sugar drink to you but they’d have to put it in two containers.
TWILLEY: I lived in New York City at this time. And I have to tell you, everybody had a complete meltdown about this. You would have thought Bloomberg was trying to take away everyone’s first-born child.
JON STEWART: I am all for promoting public health. But Mr. Mayor, this plan makes your asinine look big.
STEWART: Let me… Let me get this straight. As a New Yorker I can go on my lunch break to—I don’t know Carnegie Deli and order fourteen pounds of pastrami garnished with seven pounds of beef tongue. And not only won’t the Deli guy go ‘What? That’s the most ridiculous self destructive thing a person could ever order!’ The deli guy will go, ‘Oh you want Mandy Patinkin.’ Then I can go from there right over to Hooters for a quick basket of chicken wings, battered, deep fried, and tossed in hot sauce and melted butter served with a bowl of cheese. Top it all off with a little bit of frozen hot chocolate from Serendipity’s. All of this is legal in New York City. Until to God forbid I want to wash it down with a little something as pure and refreshing as Mountain Dew. Oh no, I’m on the run from Johnny Law.
GRABER: Jon. I love you. I do. I agree with you about almost everything. But come on!
TWILLEY: Wait Cynthia, he’s not done.
STEWART: Look, Mr Mayor, I know you can be intimidated by these large sized drinks. You and I are both, let’s face it, small. We might see a generously proportioned sugared beverage and think of it as a drowning hazard. But it’s not fair. It’s not fair.
TWILLEY: But, really, what was so unfair? Remember, no one was saying you couldn’t have all the soda your poor overstressed heart could desire. You just had to buy another cup-full. That was all.
BLOOMBERG: If you want to have multiple ones, that’s up to you. We’re not taking away anybody’s right to do anything. All we’re trying to do is to remind you that this is something that could be, should be—is, not should be—that is detrimental to your health and to do something about this national epidemic. It’s not perfect. It’s not the only answer. It’s not the only cause of people being overweight. But we’ve got to do something. Sitting around and doing nothing and watching our kids get fatter and fatter when they’re going to be overweight as adults if they’re overweight as kids—that’s just not something that we should do as a society.
GRABER: And the Board of Health in New York agreed with Mayor Mike Bloomberg. They thought that keeping sweet drinks to only 16 ounces was a great idea and could be a boon to public health. They voted in favor of it.
TWILLEY: And the soda industry? They went ape. They ran a full page ad in The New York Times showing Mike Bloomberg looking super frumpy in blue dress, looming over the city like King Kong. It was made to look like a movie poster, where the movie was called “The Nanny.” Tagline: “You Only Thought You Lived in the Land of the Free.”
GRABER: Bloomberg did respond to the ad at a press conference. “Would I wear a dress like that? No, It was one of the more unflattering dresses.”
TWILLEY: But putting Bloomberg in an unflattering dress wasn’t the only trick up the soda industry’s sleeve. They hired a public relations firm to start a supposedly citizen group called New Yorkers for Beverage Choices.
NEW YORKERS FOR BEVERAGE CHOICES AD: This is New York City. No one tells us what neighborhood to live in, what team to root for, or what deli to eat at. And don’t even try to tell the city that never sleeps that it’s bedtime. So are we going to let the Mayor tell us what size beverage to buy? If we let him get away with this, where will it end? Hey, New York, it’s time to take a stand.
GRABER: Nobody was taking away anyone’s choices! Drink all the soda you want! But frankly, the research does seem to show that if you buy a 16 ounce cup, you usually just drink that. And if you buy 32 ounces? Well, you drink all of it. That’s why this was a good idea.
TWILLEY: But Jon Stewart and the media spent so much time ridiculing the portion cap and saying the Mayor was trying to ban soft drinks, and the American Beverage Association spent so much money shifting public opinion, and so much money paying lawyers to nitpick over the jurisdictional issues, and in the end?
NEWS HOST: The ban on the sale of those giant sugary sodas, the subject of so much late-night comedy? Well, that ban has been put on hold. It was a big public health effort by the Mayor of New York to help with obesity and it was supposed to start tomorrow. But today a judge said not so fast.
GRABER: But. Bloomberg wasn’t done. You’ll hear his name in part 2 of our story, because he thinks that reducing soda consumption is really important.
TWILLEY: But I want to spend a minute here, because what about this argument, that Americans don’t need a nanny? That we can make our own choices about drinking soda?
BLEICH: Well, so number one, I think one really important thing to understand—yes, people hate being told what to do. But public health is a very long history of essentially telling people what to do. and creating these bumper cars around our lives to make us safer. So that includes sanitation, that includes vaccines, that includes seatbelts in cars, helmets when you ride a bike. There’s a whole long list of things that public health has done.
GRABER: This is Sara Bleich again. She says that, first of all, as you might remember, we need extra help to stop drinking soda because it just doesn’t make us full.
BLEICH: A second thing is that Americans and people in general have no sense of calories. So if you said to them, you know, that soda is 400 calories, or 500 calories—that’s going to require mental math. Numeracy is poor in the United States. It’s going to require an understanding of how many total calories do I need in a day? And where does this fit in? And can I remember what I even had for breakfast? And so that level of attention is often not—it’s not normal in the U.S..
TWILLEY: Given all of this, maybe we kind of do need a nanny when it comes to soda. Because we can’t rely on our bodies to tell us we’re full, and most of us, myself included, can’t make sense of the numbers on the label. And also, we’ve been trained by our environment to expect to drink huge amounts of these sugary beverages.
BLEICH: I am of the mindset that if you handed someone a 20 ounce soda rather than their 32 ounce soda, I’m not sure they’re going to be any more thirsty. They’re probably not 12 ounces more thirsty because you’ve reduced the size. And so a big part of this is you know the expectations we have around beverage sizes and just expecting everything to be very large. But I’m not convinced we do that because we’re thirsty. We just took what’s right in front of us.
GRABER: So we don’t actually have totally free will. We think we do, we think we’ve chosen to drink all that ice-cold soda, but. And it’s not just the expectation of size—we don’t even realize how intensely we’ve been subjected to soda marketing.
BLEICH: Yeah, so advertising is like the elephant in the room. So particularly for children, children younger than the age of five or six can’t tell you in the 20-minute show what was a commercial what was actually the show. So the advertising can have a huge impact on them. I have small children. I have observed that firsthand.
BROWNELL: It’s not easy to escape the presence of these sodas. First of all, there’s relentless marketing. The companies will very often say they don’t market directly to children,
TWILLEY: Which they used to do, blatantly.
PEPSI TV AD KID 1: What makes you cool is your attitude, your inner self. It’s not the way your hair’s cut. It’s not the clothes you wear. It’s not what you drink.
PEPSI TV AD KID 2: You got a Pepsi for me?
GRABER: Okay, it’s clear who’s supposed to think that drinking Pepsi makes you cool in that ad from the 80s. But even today, some of the marketing to kids is not obviously directed at kids, but really, they’re still the target.
TWILLEY: I mean for heaven’s sake, Coke literally has Santa Claus and fluffy polar bears in their ads.
BROWNELL: You know, you don’t have to look very far in a sporting event to see, on the scoreboard or some prominent place in the stadiums, big advertisements for sugared beverages. There are music stars and movie celebrities and other people children admire who become spokespeople for the beverage companies.
PEPSI COMMERCIALS: BRITNEY SPEARS, BEYONCE, MICHAEL JACKSON
TWILLEY: That medley, Cynthia! I’m about to moonwalk!
GRABER: If you’re anywhere around my age, I dare you not to start dancing. To an ad.
TWILLEY: Sara and Kelly told us that soda companies spend billions on advertising. Literally—Coke spends more than 4 billion dollars a year. And then on top of that, they also do a lot of quote unquote philanthropy, sponsoring school sports and community stuff, and that doesn’t even look like advertising to most people, but it is.
GRABER: Imagine. You’re a teen. Your school has regular football or basketball games. And every time you go, you see a soft drink company’s logo on the billboard. Why wouldn’t you be triggered to drink it? That’s an ad.
TWILLEY: Remember, soda is basically flavored, fizzy sugar water. But the marketing folks at those soda companies have turned that sugar water into a magical potion, It’s even capable of bringing world peace
COKE AD: I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony. I’d like the buy the world a Coke, and keep it company.
GRABER: I am back in elementary school right now listening to this. I think we sang it in school!
TWILLEY: That jingle was so popular coke literally released it as a single. And that’s from the 70s, but Coke is still doing this world peace schtick today.
GRABER: Coke—this is out of control—Coke set up this thing a couple of years ago where there were vending machines in India and Pakistan, and there’s like a Skype hook-up, and you could get a free Coke if you touched hands with someone in the other country.
TWILLEY: Who knew that one of the longest running conflicts in the world just needed some fizzy drinks to smooth things over?
GRABER: But let’s not forget that Coke apparently can provide happiness on an individual level, too. You can make someone else happy, you can make yourself happy.
COKE AD: That’s the way it should be, I like to see: the whole world smiling with me. Coca-Cola and smile. Have a Coke and a smile.
TWILLEY: This stuff is pervasive. And it has made Coke and Pepsi two of the most loved, most ubiquitous companies in the world.
GRABER: And even if you think that this is because they’re the most delicious drinks on the planet, it’s impossible to disentangle those feelings from all that advertising. It has a really big impact on us.
BLEICH: So what a lot of the behavioral psychologists will argue is we’re not actually making the choices that we think that we’re making, because so much of our environment is scripted around us.
GRABER: And remember, kids drink a lot of soda. And a lot of the marketing is targeted at kids. And kids? Well, everyone knows, they need nannying! Teens, too. They’re not the best decision makers. We all need these little nudges, but kids most especially.
TWILLEY: So there are a lot of reasons why we might need a little help from nanny, a.k.a. the government, to cut down on our soda consumption. Again, no one is saying you can’t have a soda if you want one, just like no one is saying you can’t have a cigarette, if you’re an adult and that’s your kind of treat.
GRABER: But basically, really, soda is only sugar and water. And it comes with health risks. Maybe not to quite the same degree as cigarettes, and soda isn’t addictive like nicotine is. If you want it, okay. But there are potential harms from drinking too much of it.
TWILLEY: So why shouldn’t public health officials introduce just a little friction into the whole process? You can still chug the 24 teaspoons of sugar in a Big Gulp if you want. But given all the ways the soda companies are manipulating you, why shouldn’t government use a few of its own tools to make you think just a tiny bit more before you drink?
BLEICH: And so behavioral nudges which have been shown in lots of different areas with just the simple little tricks, that you could call them, sort of move people in the right direction.
GRABER: That’s just what Bloomberg was trying to do. He was trying to make it just a little bit harder for you to drink a huge amount of soda, to help you drink less. He wanted to try to combat all the ways that the soda industry has been convincing you to drink more. His cap didn’t work.
TWILLEY: The same time Bloomberg’s cap was being debated, places that could pass taxes—remember, part of Bloomberg’s problem was that he wasn’t able to do that at the city level in New York—but other places around the country decided they’d try to pass taxes—to use that as a nudge.
PBS NEWS HOST: Now the campaign against sodas and sugary drinks in the name of public health. One city in California may be poised to go farther than anyone has so far with a new tax.
GRABER: This is Richmond, California, in the Bay area. The year is 2012—it’s just a few months after Bloomberg’s first proposed his soda cap.
TWILLEY: As PBS’s Spencer Michaels reported at the time, Richmond is a pretty low-income community for the region, and it had—and has—a serious childhood obesity problem.
SPENCER MICHAELS: In fact the rising rates of diabetes and other weight related illnesses are at the heart of the debate now raging in Richmond over the proposed tax.
JEFF RITTERMAN: We have a big problem with childhood obesity in Richmond. As you probably know. And it’s health disparity issue for us. Fully a third of our Latino fifth and seventh graders and a third of our African-American fifth and seventh graders are obese.
MICHAELS: City Councilman Jeff Ritterman, a cardiologist, proposed the tax which would be the first of its kind in the country.
GRABER: The plan was to use those taxes to raise millions of dollars for local sports fields, diabetes treatment for low income kids, and nutrition classes in schools.
TWILLEY: But not everyone was on board.
MICHAELS: At the family market in the working class town of Richmond, California, near San Francisco, owner Mohammed el Zulfri is deeply concerned about a new city council backed measure which would place a penny per ounce tax on sugar sweetened beverages.
EL ZULFRI: This will just hurt the poor people and hurt the business owners like myself. People that want to drink sodas they drink… Palm Springs and Beverly Hills—they all drink soda. I mean it’s not a matter of you know just Richmond that got fat.
GRABER: A city councilman named Corky Boozé agreed this was a bad idea.
MICHAELS: Boozé says some residents will shop elsewhere to avoid the tax. But poor people won’t be able to.
CORKY BOOZE: It’s unfair to people who are basically don’t have the means of getting out of their neighborhood store to go into the neighboring communities to be able to avoid that tax.
MICHAELS: And Boozé says he doesn’t think the government should be in the business of dictating what people should drink or eat.
BOOZE: I think that when we get to the point of being a dictator to people, I think it’s wrong. People are heavy for all kinds of reasons.
TWILLEY: These arguments—they’re the arguments that were being made by our old friends the American Beverage Association. They spent heavily to campaign against this tax. They paid people to argue against it at community meetings. They even ran a Super Bowl ad.
AMERICAN BEVERAGE ASSOCIATION AD: Feeding a family is difficult enough in today’s economy. Now some politicians want the government telling me how I should do it.
GRABER: On November 6, 2012, the people of Richmond, California went to the polls. They had to say yay or nay to Measure N, a one cent per ounce tax on soda. And it failed.
TWILLEY: Over the next couple of years, a soda tax ballot initiative failed in Telluride, Colorado. It failed in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It failed in Chicago. It failed in El Monte, California. It failed in dozens of places around the U.S.
GRABER: Until one finally passes. In 2014.
REPORTERS: Voters in Berkeley California are the first in the nation to approve a tax on sodas, to make people drink less sugar.
GRABER: Seventy six percent of people voted in favor of the tax. Despite the fact that the soda industry spent nearly two and a half million dollars in Berkeley against it—thirty dollars per voter. Four months later, the city would put the tax in place. It would add a penny an ounce tax on sweetened beverages.
TWILLEY: So—did it work? Did the soda tax reduce obesity? Or did all the failures the soda companies predicted—did they come true?
GRABER: Industry groups had some pretty dire warnings. They said people would just go buy their soda somewhere else. Local grocery stores would lose money. They’d lose jobs. The poor would suffer the most. And people wouldn’t cut down their soda consumption at all, so there wouldn’t even be a health benefit.
GRABER: We’ll tell you that story in two weeks. Plus: why and how did the soda industry take the entire state of California hostage just this past summer?
TWILLEY: And is a soda tax the most effective tool to reduce obesity, or is there something else places could be doing that would have more impact?
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Julie Mennella, Barry Popkin, Rick Mattes, Vasanti Malik, Kelly Brownell, Sara Bleich, and Steven Gortmaker. And a special thank you to Gastropod listener and volunteer Sam Panzer, who helps us get transcripts of our episodes for you all and who also found quite a bit of the cool sound in this episode. Thank you, Sam!
GRABER: And don’t forget: We want your ideas for how to improve the diversity on the show, email us at contact AT gastropod.com. We want your help by filling out our survey at gastropod.com/survey—and you might win a one hundred dollar Amazon gift card. And we really need your help in telling people regularly about the show in person and on social media! Help us spread the love!
TWILLEY: Tune in in two weeks for the second part of our soda wars story. In which big soda takes things up a notch.
GRABER: You described the media kind of calling it blackmail, does it sound like blackmail to you?
BLEICH: I think essentially that is what happened. I mean if you ask the legislators did they want to make that choice? It doesn’t sound like they do. So it was checkmate. It was a very effective strategy by the American Beverage Association.