This video from The Center for Science in the Public Interest was going viral yesterday. You might recognize a passing similarity to the Coca-Cola polar bears. That’s no doubt on purpose. I’m not sure how I feel about it yet, so I’m neither recommending or discouraging anyone to watch it–just telling you my reaction to it and the issue. Make up your own mind. It definitely hit home for me–I had second thoughts about the mini Twix staring me down in my office yesterday afternoon. If you choose not to watch it, here is a link to a Yahoo News story yesterday discussing the video, so at least you can get the gist of what is in it.
If I’ve learned one thing since I started taking an interest in food politics, it’s that NO one likes to be told how to eat. Food plays such a deep personal and emotional role in all our lives, criticizing how someone eats is almost an affront to who they are. But, I don’t think anyone can deny that we have a public health problem with obesity and diet-related illnesses.
This video reminded me of my grandfather, who was a type-2 diabetic later in his life. While he didn’t have the complications that the papa bear has in this video, his life was dramatically changed by the diagnosis. He was reminded of that at every meal and sometimes in between as he’d prick his fingers to check his sugar. I remember a lady who cared for him as he neared the end of his life (and had suffered a stroke and needed round the clock assistance), bought him a birthday cake from the local grocery store. She proudly proclaimed that it had sugar free icing so he could enjoy it.
That strikes me as so absurd now. Imagine, an entire industry of food tailored so that those who are diabetic can continue enjoying the same food they always have. It didn’t even occur to my grandfather to CHANGE his diet outside of switching to sugar-free food products. I suspect there was very little discussion or support from his family doctor about changing his diet, although I can’t be sure. I wasn’t in the room with him at the doctor’s office, but if it wasn’t discussed in a gentle and supportive way (remember no one wants to be told how to eat…), it was a huge missed opportunity.
The other thing that the video made me think about is all of the effort the soda industry has been going to to cooperate with government and various groups promoting health and fighting obesity. I certainly applaud some of the effort. The posting of calories on soda now, especially the calories for the entire container, if it is, for example, a 12-ounce can, rather than per serving, which was eight ounces, is a step in the right direction. And I was pleased to see Coca Cola widely offering smaller-sized individual containers, such as 12-ounce plastic bottles and eight-ounce cans. However, serving sizes are still confusing–24-ounce bottles being sold along side “single” servings such as the 12-ounce bottles at convenience stores, rather than with the two liters.
Don’t be fooled, though. Soda companies are in business to make money. There’s nothing wrong with that. How they market their products in a way that is border line coercive is what’s wrong. Demand for food used to be fixed. The market was finite. Our stomachs only hold so much before we get full and don’t want any more food. The food industry has mastered the tactic of getting consumers to buy (and eat) as much as they possibly can, and then convincing us we need more of it. The steady creep of portion sizes is an example. In the video, the advertising for the soda promises happiness if you drink the soda. How many soda ads can you think of that feature superstars, are flashy eye-catching displays of graphics, contain a message of happiness and contentment or nostalgia, or even worse, feature cartoons in kid-friendly formats?
The advertising and the message the soda industry is sending to us to drink more soda, coupled with social changes have gotten us into the mess. The social changes are in the role that we see soda in today. In my mom’s childhood, a soda was a “treat” you got when you went into town or went to the store, which wasn’t that often. People she knew didn’t keep it at home. It wasn’t drank on a regular basis. Now, it has a place at all three meals. Just look at the breakfast menu board at a fast food place. “Don’t care for coffee?? Of course, we have 32 ounce and bigger soft drinks available!!” It’s everywhere, and its consumers are all cultures, races and ages. Even babies.
I’m still unsure how the video will be received by those that need to hear the message the most desperately. Some (the soda industry) have criticized it as being a little preachy and fearmongering. If nothing else, this video probably will probably make people stop and think for a second. Hopefully, we will all think about what kind of future is in store for this country and for our kids. Even if you chose not to watch it, we’ve already started the discussion about what role the soda industry deserves in our daily lives, and hopefully we can eventually reach some positive resolution.