Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Marion Nestle's Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning)

Marion Nestle's new book is Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning) (Oxford University Press, 2015).

The book is thorough, balanced, hard-hitting, and motivating. It covers health effects, industry structure, marketing to adults, marketing to children, marketing overseas, policy responses, and advocacy movements.

The writing is clear, unassuming, and terse.

The coverage of health effects is persuasive. Nestle discusses cutting edge concerns without overstatement or exaggeration (additives and cancer, particular properties of fructose). She more strongly emphasizes the main established links with even-handed and authoritative force (tooth decay, liquid calories, links to overweight and obesity, and type II diabetes).

Nestle avoids many possible pitfalls in such a book. Though she quotes industry propaganda that paints her as a shrill critic of the modern food system, her own writing shows her to be a careful listener and reader of diverse perspectives. She calls out what is wrong, yet never demonizes opponents. Her chapter on Derek Yach, one-time World Health Organization public health champion and later PepsiCo vice president, is insightful and understanding.

Some radical authors of critical books on a particular industry seem ready not just to reform that industry, but perhaps to do away with all other such industries. One gets the sense that the author is using one industry as a vehicle for more broadly condemning the modern global capitalist economy, but the implied alternative remains blurry.

Other more mainstream authors of critical books find themselves lost for something sensible and upbeat to say in the final chapter. I most dislike it when these final chapters resort to empty hopes that well-meaning people in the industry will just see the light and change their ways.

With Nestle, instead, the reader can picture just what would happen if her book becomes influential: leading health organizations would wean themselves from soda industry money, public opinion would become more demanding, state and local advocates would win new policies on marketing, taxation, and school environments, soda consumption would follow tobacco's downward path, and the United States would enjoy lower rates of obesity and chronic disease.

This will mostly happen because of actions outside of the soda companies.
Like businesses in general, food businesses -- even the most socially conscious -- must put profits first. To be effective, advocates must understand that soda and other food corporations are willing to spend fortunes to influence political processes. Without anywhere near that kind of funding, it becomes necessary to find smarter methods for using the political process to counter soda industry marketing.
Nestle delivers a steady stream of advocacy-related diagnosis and suggestions in short well-organized paragraphs at the end of chapters throughout the book. The final chapter then seamlessly provides conclusions that feel consistent with the whole work.

The book is above all informative. For those readers who share Nestle's critical perspective on the food industry, it is obvious that this book would be informative. But here is the greater surprise: this solid book is by far the best source on this topic for any reader, with any perspective on economics or politics.

If I worked for a trade association, or an industry front group, or an esteemed professional association that relies on soda industry funding, or the House Agriculture Committee, or a sugar manufacturer, or a high-powered corporate law firm, I might store this book in my desk drawer rather than my book shelf ... yet I would read it word for word.


AmeriBev said...

As independent analysis indicates, Marion’s book contains numerous inaccuracies: Like other sources of calories, soft drinks can be integrated into a balanced diet and active life. Our industry is promoting this message via our Balance Calories Initiative – encouraging Americans of all ages to approach diet and exercise with a comprehensive and holistic view. Bottom line: soda is not the culprit some claim, and it’s sensationalistic to single out this one product in this way.

Parke Wilde said...

Thanks for the comment here, AmeriBev.

But your link is broken (it goes to a spammy Reddit page for some reason).

Did you mean this blog post on the American Beverage Association website?

The first part of that blog post tries to cast doubt on well-established links between soda consumption and risk of overweight, citing a small recent increase in overweight prevalence.

The second part of that blog post praises the industry's "Clear on Calories" initiative, which presumably is designed to provide consumers with the information they need to reduce consumption. The post concludes, "Working together we can take on the obesity problem." That conclusion essentially acknowledges that drinking fewer calories from soda is part of the solution to the obesity problem.

It is almost as if the author of the second half of the blog post had not read the first half.