Why a Soda Tax Matters

Soda Tax

Over the last several years, there have been over 30 proposed taxes on sugary beverages.  Sugary drinks (such as soda, fruit drinks, and sports drinks) are the single biggest source of added sugar in our diet today, and these drinks have very little, if any, healthy ingredients in them. Now, there is strong scientific evidence that they are also linked to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. Drinking sugary beverages does not make you feel full, which means that drinking 240 calories in a 20-ounce soda will not keep you from eating 240 fewer calories later. All those extra calories, day-after-day, begin to add up and turn into weight gain.

With all of that in mind, motives for this type of legislation are not surprising.  Hoping to match the effectiveness of taxes on tobacco, supporters believe a soda tax will discourage consumption of unhealthy drinks, offset the cost of obesity, and raise revenue for health and wellness initiatives.  Economists have determined that if the price of sugary drinks goes up 10 percent, consumption will go down by about 10-12 percent.  A tax of only a penny-per-ounce, would raise the cost of the average sugary drink by about 15-20 percent. This would be more than enough to reduce the amount that people buy, and the funds could be used on obesity prevention and health promotion programs.

Not surprisingly, the beverage industry has used their lobbying dollars to stymie these efforts, with great success.  But that hasn’t stopped legislators from continuing to make proposals.  Berkeley and San Francisco are the latest examples – both with soda taxes on the ballot for the upcoming November 4th election.  Whether you live in one of these municipalities or not, there are several reasons why you should care about the outcome of these initiatives.

1. A soda tax will work. Last year, Mexico passed a penny per ounce tax on soda and junk food, despite the large amounts of money beverage companies spent to prevent it.  Just as the companies feared, soda consumption dropped almost immediately in Mexico by several percentage points. And as advocate, Patrick Mustain, points out:

The amount of energy being poured into fighting these taxes is a pretty good indication that the industry, with all its well-funded market and consumer research, knows that if sugary drinks begin to be taxed, then consumption of these products will indeed begin to drop.

To date, the beverage industry has spent 1.6 million fighting the tax in Berkeley and a staggering 7.7 million in San Francisco.

2. It will change norms.  While beverage companies may try to convince you otherwise, a soda tax will not raise the price of all groceries.  It will raise the price of sugary drinks, which are not a grocery staple.  They are an indulgence.  Or, at least they should be.  Beverage companies have become quite good at getting people to consumer more sugary drinks (and in larger quantities) than they probably would naturally.  Sugary drinks are the default beverage accompanying fast food meals, can be found in coolers in nearly every store checkout lane,  are marketed as a size “small” even when the portion is 3-4 times the recommended serving size, and are almost always available with “free refills” at restaurants. A tax on these beverages reinforces the notion that these sugary drinks are a treat, and should be treated as such.

3. It will set a precedent. A soda tax passing anywhere in the United States, even in a more progressive area like Berkeley or San Francisco, is likely to ignite similar measures throughout the country.  Especially once data can be accumulated to prove it’s effectiveness.  California was the first state to ban smoking in restaurants and bars all the way back in 1998.  Now, it’s become so commonplace across the US, that entering an establishment that allows smoking seems uncomfortable.

4. It paves the way for other public health initiatives. Once health advocates realized that education wasn’t enough to reduce tobacco use, a multitude of polices were proposed to tackle the problem – which as we know, is what really caused smoking rates to finally drop.  Soda taxes are likely only the first of many policy initiatives that will be used to decrease consumption of sugary drinks.  Policy makers and health advocates haven’t given up on methods such as warning labels on packaging and serving size restrictions. By following tobacco’s example, maybe an effective tax could even lead to restrictions on the marketing of sugary drinks to children, or the removal of soda vending machines.  It may seem far-fetched, but I’m sure the same was thought of the restrictions put on cigarettes when they were first proposed.

Currently, rates of obesity and overweight show no signs of dropping, and more and more healthcare dollars are being used to treat diet related disease.  We know that sugary drinks are part of the problem.  Reducing consumption makes good economic and public health sense. A tax on sugary drinks can help make it possible.

Food Crime Friday: Yoplait Light Yogurt

Yoplait Light has always been known for dessert-like yogurt flavors  such as Key Lime Pie, Red Velvet Cupcake, and Pineapple Upside Down Cake.  The product line is also known for only being 90 calories per cup – which is very attractive to those consumers who are watching their waistlines.  To achieve these tasty sounding concoctions without adding too much sugar (and thus increasing the number of calories), Yoplait Light has always contained the artificial sweetener, Aspartame. Until now.


General Mills, owner of the Yoplait brand, recently announced the removal of Aspartame from Yoplait Light products.  According to their website, this was largely a consumer driven move.  The packaging of every container, now boasts the recent change:


Before we start applauding their efforts, we must take a look at the ingredients list for the updated product line, to see how they are still achieving their “90 calorie” status. As is no surprise, the Aspartame in Yoplait Light has just been replaced with a different artificial sweetener.  In fact, it actually contains two: Sucralose and Acesulfame Potassium. I don’t see the company displaying that in large bold letters on the front of their packaging.


The company isn’t necessarily being silent about the fact that they’ve switched from one artificial sweetener to another (check out this video), but unless you are a regular reader of the General Mills blog, or caught a news article about it – chances are, you’ll be learning about the change as you scan yogurt products in the grocery store aisle.  As the research continues to pile up suggesting that artificial sweeteners may be doing you more harm than good, it is shameful that General Mills has decided to use this type of “bait and switch” front-of-package marketing to mislead consumers into thinking they are getting a better, healthier product.

If you are looking for a healthy yogurt, you are much better off just buying plain yogurt and adding fruit or a bit of honey to sweeten it up.


Food Crime Friday: Oscar Mayer Carving Board Meats

Food companies are becoming more aware of the health conscious consumer’s desire for less processed foods. To reach this market, companies could start stripping down the number of ingredients and using less processing to create their products.  But, that would be too easy.  Instead, some companies are actually doing more processing – to make their products appear less processed.

Case in point: Oscar Mayer’s Carving Board Meats.


These meats have ragged cuts, and darkened edges to make the meat look like it was just carved from a roast.  Their advertising would even make you think it is equivalent to what you would get from a Thanksgiving dinner.

But what they don’t advertise is what you’ll find right in the ingredients list.

Carving ingredients

Those darkened edges are just created with caramel food coloring.  Sodium nitrites (linked to cancer in some studies) are used to preserve the meat.  And the sodium content is far higher than anything one would get from a roast cooked in their own kitchen.  Major health organizations recommend that we consume no more than 1500-2300 mg of sodium daily (depending on your age and health.)  Carving Board meats contain anywhere from 540-630 mg of sodium per serving. This means that one sandwich (if you follow the recommended serving size) would eat up more than 1/4 of your daily needs – and that’s not including any condiments or other toppings.  Yikes.

Don’t fall for this one, folks.  This product line is nothing more than regular, overly-salted, heavily processed Oscar Meyer deli meat with a cosmetic face lift.

Food Crime Friday: Beauty Sweeties

We’ve all seen food products with health claims before – packaging that touts magical ingredients that will lead to weight loss, lower cholesterol, or a reduced risk for heart disease.  A new product from Germany is taking a different approach – claiming their gummy candies will make you beautiful.

beauty sweeties 2What are the secret “beautifying” ingredients in these treats? According to the company’s website, each Beauty Sweeties product contains coenzyme Q10, collagen, biotin, and/or aloe vera.

Beauty sweeties 1Not that I’m buying into the notion that candy can make you pretty, but I thought I would look into each of these ingredients, just for fun.

  • The claimed “beautifying” effect for Coenzyme Q10 is related to antioxidant activity, but the science is not conclusive.  In fact, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that there is no cause and effect between ingesting Coenzyme Q10 and protection from oxidative damage.
  • While ingesting collagen to create younger looking skin is a common practice in Japan and more recently, in some European countries, there is no research to date proving any real effects.  Simply from a nutrition standpoint, there is no way for collagen to be transported directly to the skin when it is eaten, as it is broken down during digestion into amino acids just like any other protein. These amino acids are then used to produce different kinds of protein needed for muscle and cartilage growth, hair and nails, hemoglobin production and other processes in the body.
  • Biotin’s “beautifying” quality is likely traced to the claim that the vitamin can improve dry skin, hair and nails.  However the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates biotin as having insufficient evidence to support such claims.
  • Ingestion of aloe vera (often in the form of aloe vera juice), has become popular for it’s proposed effects on skin renewal and detoxification.  In addition to there being little scientific evidence to back these claims, consuming aloe vera can lead to some pretty ugly side effects, including abdominal pain and diarrhea.

The only truly impactful ingredient in these gummy candies is sugar – and there sure is a lot.  The first two ingredients are glucose syrup (sugar) and regular sugar.

Beauty sweeties 4The front of the package makes sure to indicate that each product contains 20% fruit juice and 6% fruit pieces.

Beauty sweeties 3While 20% isn’t that much to begin with, what they are speaking of is fruit juice concentrate, which as I’ve mentioned in the past, is just another fancy form of sugar.

I don’t think much more explanation is required for why this product achieves Food Crime status.  Thanks to Jennifer Heatley and Casey Hinds for letting me know about this one!

Food Crime Friday: Taco Bell’s Foundation for Teens

I’ve decided to add a new category to my blog, called Food Crimes!  Every Friday, I’ll be posting about a misleading or deceptive marketing tactic being used to sell unhealthy products.  Most of us have been duped by food marketing at some point – mislead into purchasing a product we thought was good for us.  Or maybe there is a marketing practice targeting kids that is particularly shameful.  Whatever the scenario – you can find it here every Friday!

To start things off – Taco Bell’s Foundation for Teens.

TBFFT-RGB-StandardThe Taco Bell Foundation for Teens has announced it will provide funding to Junior Achievement, an organization dedicated to empowering young people to pursue higher education. Taco Bell claims that the partnership shows their commitment to ensuring students are prepared for a successful career.  Why is this a food crime?   Clever marketing tactics disguised as philanthropy is just another play in the food marketing playbook. The collaboration between Taco Bell and Junior Achievement, enables the company to easily connect with teens, a highly desirable market.  For example, a recent Junior Achievement back-to-school event offered students free Taco Bell products, distributed from a heavily-branded Taco Bell truck. The money provided by Taco Bell is surely small potatoes in comparison to the return they will receive by attracting new customers.  If the company was truly just interested in giving back – they would provide funding without the additional peddling of their unhealthy products to youth.

Are processed, junk foods losing the consumer vote?

The well-known advice from Michael Pollan, “you can vote with your fork, and you can do it three times a day” just might be helping to turn the tide on the dominance of the junk food industry.  Though the power of Big Food in the United States has often seemed indestructible, sales are declining for many of the biggest players, including the Campbell Soup Company, Kellogg’s and McDonald’s.  Increasing consumer interest in food with simpler ingredients has led sectors like natural and organic to outpace more processed categories.

Just this week, the New York Times reported on the major sales decline for ready-to-eat breakfast cereals:

The drop-off has accelerated lately, especially among those finicky millennials who tend to graze on healthy options.


In August, McDonald’s reported it’s weakest monthly sales results in more than a decade. In this Nasdaq article, the author makes a hard-hitting point about American’s desire to eat healthier food:

Generations ago, Americans accepted the world they were given without much question.  It is hardly surprising that they put McDonalds food in their mouths, trusting it not to hurt them – they did the same thing with cigarettes – but times do change. Today’s consumer goes out to eat with an active desire to not contribute to his or her own death.


Coca-cola sales have also been dropping. Food Navigator reports:

Concerns about sugar and calories have caused consumers to re-evaluate the amount of soda in their diet.


Sales of frozen meals have also seen a noticeable decline.  Even brands such as Lean Cuisine, Healthy Choice, and Weight Watchers have all reported losses, despite their healthy sounding names.  Bloomberg reports:

Mothers are more concerned about the healthiness of frozen meals than any food item other than soda and sweet snacks.

Making things worse is the “long and scary” list of ingredients in frozen meals, which include preservatives like potassium sorbate, calcium propionate, sodium tripolyphosphate and sorbic acid


Does this mean that consumers desire to eat healthy is the only reason these companies are losing sales? Definitely not. There are a multitude of issues each company is facing, but the desire for less processed, healthful foods is certainly an important factor affecting consumer decisions.

While McDonald’s sales are rapidly dropping, profits for companies like Chipotle, which focus on healthier, fresher and higher quality ingredients, are skyrocketing. And Big Food companies have been rapidly swooping up brands in the natural and organic food categories, as sales for these items have been growing rapidly over the last ten years.  This week, General Mills officials announced their acquisition of Annie’s Inc., a company devoted to organic and natural products. And upon slumping sales for the Campbell Soup company, CEO Denise Morrison, was quoted as saying, “the company will focus future acquisitions in North America on targets in the health and wellness category.”  Consumers are becoming more aware of the dangers of high-salt foods, and Campbell’s products have long been a major culprit.


While it is impossible to predict whether or not these trends will continue, the power we have as health-conscious consumers is becoming more evident.  Michael Pollan is right. In addition to voting for sound food policies for an improved food environment, you can also vote with your fork!  Every time we spend money, the recipient of our dollars gets the message that we approve of their product and we want more of it, with the opposite also being true.


Another reason to stop marketing junk food to kids

According to a new study, the more familiar a child is with logos and other images from popular fast food restaurants, snack foods, and sodas, the more likely the child is be overweight or obese. To come to this conclusion, researchers tested preschooler’s knowledge of various brands, including their ability to identify items such as silly rabbits and the golden arches, and found that those who could identify these icons the most, tended to have higher body mass indexes (BMI’s).

Trix are for kids

Studies like this speak volumes about the public health concern that is food marketing to children. On television alone, the average U.S. child sees approximately 13 food commercials every day. The food products advertised are almost exclusively for high-sugar breakfast cereals, fast food, candy, and sugary drinks. And companies are starting to get more creative. You can find youth targeted food marketing in schools, on websites, and through social media. The messages kids receive from this advertising are to pester their parents to buy the products, and that consuming high-calorie, nutritionally-poor foods will result in happiness and fun.

Some argue that since young children don’t generally purchase their own food – than the onus should lie in the hands of the parents to protect kids from these messages. When kids nag their parents for the products they’ve seen in advertising, parents should just say, “no.” Or better yet, parents should just shield their children from being marketed to in the first place. Unfortunately, as we’ve learned, this requires more work than just turning off the television. See this great video from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity:

For those parents that aren’t savvy enough to safeguard their children from the $2 billion dollars’ worth of food marketing directed at them every year, it’s the children who pay the price. Companies spend this kind of money marketing to kids because it works. It builds brand loyalty and preferences for unhealthy products at a very early age, likely to last a lifetime. Authors of this study site this as the most troubling potential consequence of their research. They noted that the findings provided insight into children’s relationship with food, and what food means to them.  If a relationship with these brands can already be negatively impacting their weight and health at 3-5 years old, surely it is possible that it will continue to do so.

No matter where we place the blame, one thing is for sure: There is nothing positive that can result from this type of targeted marketing to young people. Exploiting children’s vulnerabilities to make a buck is shameful and as some would argue – even abusive. In fact, Brazil, has made all advertising to children illegal based on this point.

Their resolution states:

The practice of directing advertising and marketing communication to children with the intention of persuading them to consume any product or service is abusive and, therefore, illegal as per the Consumer Defense Code.

Meanwhile, the United States struggles to pass even measly voluntary guidelines for food companies on what types of food they should and should not market to youth. In this country, lobbying speaks louder than common sense public health measures.  Hopefully, studies such as this will help build the case for policies to protect our nation’s children as well.