The Pernicious Influence of Soda Industry on Public Health

Story at-a-glance -

  • The book "Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning)" is a fascinating exposé, revealing information that is hidden from the average person by design and intention
  • The book reveals the nearly identical strategies to the drug companies that the soda industry uses to manipulate laws and ultimately, trick more people into consuming more of their pernicious product
  • Soda companies do not disagree that obesity is a challenge. But, they deflect the focus away from soda as a primary cause of obesity by reframing obesity as a matter of exercise deficiency

By Dr. Mercola

Most people understand the influence the drug industry wields via its revolving door with federal regulatory agencies. Less is known about the influence of the food manufacturers, particularly manufacturers of soft drinks.

Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, who holds a master's degree in Public Health from University of California, Berkeley and a PhD in Molecular Biology, has written a number of books.

Two of the most prominent ones are Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, and the one that we discuss in this interview, which is Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning).

It's a fascinating exposé, and reveals a wealth of information that is highly likely you were previously unaware of as to how pervasive the soda industry influence really is.

To Control Your Weight, Ditch Soda

Nestle was the chairman of Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University (NYU) for 15 years. She's a staunch advocate for public health and a leading voice in helping people understand these issues.

"I've been writing about food politics for 20 years or so. Each one of my books grows out over the previous one. This one emerges naturally from my previous work because sodas are low-hanging fruit, in public health terms," she says.

"The first thing you should do if you're trying to control your weight is stop drinking sugary beverages. They have calories. They don't have any nutrients. They really don't do anything for you, and the potential for doing harm is quite great.

As the Center for Science in the Public Interest has put it for years, sodas are liquid candy. You wouldn't be eating candy all day long if you were worried about your health. You shouldn't be drinking sugary drinks all day long either."

The soda industry is also well aware of the connection between soda consumption and obesity and obesity-related diseases.

As explained by Nestle, soda companies are by law required to inform the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) about vulnerabilities, and for the last decade Coca-Cola has been telling the SEC that obesity is the number one threat to soda industry profits — and for good reason.

"Health advocates have been telling the public to cut down on sugary drink consumption for quite a long time now and sales are down," Nestle says.

"That's why the title of my book is Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning), because the sales are down. They think it's due to public health advocacy, and I do too."

How the Soda Industry Infiltrates Communities to Increase Soda Sales

Part of Nestle's book reveals how collaborations have been established with communities that have essentially been "paid off" to increase soda sales. The scope and comprehensiveness of the soda industry's influence was a big surprise even to her.

"If you're a community organization and you're working on anything even remotely related to health and you want a grant from Coca-Cola, you could get one, no matter how small you are. That was the part that really surprised me.

We saw that a lot during the fight over the Bloomberg soda cap. There were so many community organizations in New York City that got grants from Coca-Cola or the American Beverage Association (ABA), and these groups were unwilling to come out in opposition to the Bloomberg soda cap."

What she's referring to is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's failed attempt to ban the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces in restaurants, movie theaters, sports arenas, and other food establishments within city limits, in an attempt to curb rising obesity rates.

"The soda industry went berserk. I would give anything to know how much money they spent to defeat that measure, because the fight over it went on for several years," she says.

The soda industry set up a fake "grassroots" initiative, an industry-funded front group, to raise public opinion against the proposal. According Nestle, they paid people 30 dollars an hour to collect petitions against the soda cap.

Planes flew over the city with banners, and there were truck signs, and movie theatre ads, and home mailings — all urging people to not let "the Nanny state" dictate what they eat and drink, and to reject the soda cap.

Eventually the soda industry sued the city and won on grounds that the city had gone about it administratively, and in an improper way.

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Community Organization and Education Is Paramount to Defeat 'Big Soda'

Berkeley, California learned from New York's mistakes and successfully passed a soda tax last year. The keys to winning were strong community organizing, and framing the issue not as a public health measure but as a "Berkley Against Big Soda" issue.

By framing it that way, everyone very quickly realized what the soda industry was up to when it pulled out yet another PR trick. Berkeley managed to destroy the soda industry's credibility, and in so doing was able to win.

"You have to do a lot of education and bring people on board who may respond to the food industry's framing of the issue as something that's just going to cost you money," Nestle says.

The food industry has picked up the [tobacco industry's] playbook in its entirety. The first thing they do is they try to discredit the science, and then they discredit the scientists.

They attack the messenger and try to reframe the issues as 'it's really about physical activity and hydration. Sodas aren't bad for your health,' and so forth.

They're having a harder and harder time doing that now as more of the tactics are being exposed. That's part of why the subtitle of my book is 'and winning.'"

The Latest Soda Deception: 'Energy Balance'

One of the newer tactics employed by the soda industry is to refer to "energy balance." They've even created a front group called the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN). In a nutshell, they don't disagree that obesity is a challenge. But they deflect the focus away from soda as a primary cause of obesity by reframing obesity as a matter of exercise deficiency.

"It would be funny if it didn't have such important public health implications," Nestle says. "The New York Times did an exposé in August of Coca-Cola's funding of this particular network and I was quoted in it. So, I talked to a lot of reporters in the week after that article came out.

What surprised me was how shocked the reporters were at the revelation that Coca-Cola was funding university scientists to say something like, 'You really don't have to worry about what you eat. Everything is about physical activity.' Wouldn't it be nice if that were true? But unfortunately, it's not. "

Soda Manufacturing Uses a Surprising Amount of Water

Soda taxes and size restrictions are not the only battles waged by the soda industry in an effort to maintain sales. They're also fighting any and all legislation relating to restrictions on water usage and plastic bottle waste. For example, soda companies have worked very hard to allow bottled drinks to be sold in national parks, which tried to ban the sale of bottled water because a third of their litter is discarded water bottles.

With regards to water, you may be surprised at how much water it actually takes to produce a liter of soda. While the industry's "water footprint" varies depending on who's doing the calculation, soda companies estimate it takes about 1.3 liters to manufacture one liter of soda. This does not include the amount of water needed to clean the plant, wash the bottles, and other sanitary tasks. Nor does it include the water used to grow the corn and sugar. Independent groups that include these add-ons have come up with estimates of anywhere from 300 to 600 liters of water per liter of soda!

How Pouring-Rights Contracts Ushered Soda into Schools

Another topic discussed in her book is how soda companies use pouring-rights contracts to penetrate the youth market in schools. Through this strategy, they've captured the majority of the colleges, high schools, and a significant percentage of the grade school populations in the US. Just what is a pouring-rights contract? These types of contracts began in the 1990s. They're contracts entered into with school districts for the exclusive use of the company's product in that school. So, you're either a Coke school or a Pepsi school, and this means all the vending machines have either Coke or Pepsi products in them.

"It was fine when they were doing it in colleges," Nestle says. "But then they worked their way down to high school, and then to junior high school. When they got to grammar schools, they'd gone too far. There was a lot of push back. Now, they are pretty much removed from grammar schools. But the deal was that they would give the school district millions of dollars, and it seemed like a lot of money, and then the schools would install vending machines everywhere.

There's research that shows that the more vending machines there are, the more products are sold. It put the schools in the position of pushers. That they would push the kids to drinks sodas because then, the school district got more money, which they could use for discretionary purposes, mostly school boards and athletic kinds of things."

However, while a few million dollars sounds like a lot, many schools ended up being schooled in the economics of business through these types of contracts, as no one calculated the amount of money they had to pay for the product that went into the machines, plus servicing of the machines, cups, logos, napkins, and all the other paraphernalia that goes along with having vending machines.   "By the time you deducted all of that, they were hardly making any money at all. It just seemed like it was a lot," she says.

Strategies That Make a Difference

Despite issues such as these, Nestle's book is actually quite optimistic. Education efforts are working, and soda consumption is on a slow but steady decline. Nestle and I have both taken part in this long-term education campaign, warning people about the health hazards of soda for more than two decades. Her book also delves into specific strategies you can employ locally to help improve people's health. Each chapter contains a recommendation.

"That's really why I wrote the book. I want to turn everybody into advocates for whatever food issue that they're interested in," she says. "This is a model of advocacy that's actually working... It starts, first of all, by identifying what your goal is and making it as specific as possible. Then, you try to recruit allies to work with you, to figure out the best possible way under the circumstances that you have for achieving that goal.

If your goal is getting people to drink less soda, you want to think about all the different ways in which you can get people to drink less soda and then recruit as many allies as you possibly can to help you think through what your strategies are going to be for doing that, and then you go into the communities and work with the communities to figure out how they can improve their health by, in this case, drinking less soda. So it's this big community effort, and to the extent that you do that and bring in the media and bring in as many allies as possible, you will have a really good chance of making progress over time."

There are large numbers of advocacy organizations around food and nutrition issues, and Nestle lists many of the more prominent ones on her website, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. Other public health institutes across the US are also doing phenomenal work on anti-soda advocacy. 

If you want to tackle obesity and diabetes in your local community, there are many ways to do so. For example, you can petition your work place to stop selling soda in its vending machines. Of course, talk to your kids about the ramifications of soda consumption, and reframe soda as the occasional treat, not a primary beverage that you drink every single day in large quantities. Nestle's book contains an entire chapter on how to confront kids about these realities, and how to become advocates themselves. Her website,, also lists a number of videos that go with various chapters of her book.

Influencing the Influence-Makers

Another area Nestle delves into in her book is how the soda industry is able to influence influence-makers and people in prestigious positions, such as the head of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and people associated with the World Health Organization (WHO). Needless to say, such individuals have done a lot to help whitewash the industry's health image.

"If you're very wealthy, you have very wealthy friends. So, Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola executives make friends with lots of very important people, and I tell some of those stories in the book. "

One such example was an executive of the World Health Organization, where he was in charge of chronic disease prevention. Nestle knew him personally, and regarded him as a public health hero, doing everything he could to fight food industry marketing of junk foods to kids. "It was a big shock to me when he went to work as an executive of PepsiCo," she admits.

She believes he sincerely believed that by going to work from the inside of a large soda company he could make a significant difference. But whether or not he's actually had any measurable success in changing the system is up for debate.

This particular story is also interesting in that while he was an executive at the World Health Organization, with hundreds of people working for him, he took a strong stance against soda marketing to children. Through lobbying various politicians, the soda companies managed to get him demoted to a position so low it basically forced him to quit. So it seems a bit ironic that he ended up within the folds of Pepsi after that.

Medical Professionals Also Need to Become Better Informed

One group of professionals that really need to become better informed is the medical profession. Many doctors still do not realize just how big of a problem conflicts of interest with the food industry really is. I've delved deep into conflicts of interest for the last 20 years, beginning with the conflict of interest involving drug companies and its influence on health recommendations, since I'm a physician myself. Nestle's book reveals the very same type of influence being wielded by the food and soda industries. Her book really opened my eyes to how widespread conflicts of interest are, and how pervasive its influence is.

As noted by Nestle:

"It's extraordinarily pervasive. On my blog,, I've collected food industry-funded studies with results in favor of the food industry's marketing interest. Their studies, I think, are done for marketing purposes. They're certainly not about the science. So, the egg industry funds studies on how eggs don't have anything to do with cholesterol.

The soda industry funds studies on how the sugars in sodas don't do anything bad for your health. The dairy industry funds studies on how dairy industry is fine. Onward, the pork industry funds studies on how bacon is good for health because you're eating it for breakfast. I mean, I could just go on and on. And a lot of this research may be perfectly okay, [but] how would you know? That's what's so disturbing about it."

Take Control of Your Health

The good news is that increasing numbers of people are now waking up to the many corporate influences running their lives, and you, being among those who are informed, can help share this knowledge with others. Nestle's website,, contains a lot of information you can peruse, either to learn more for yourself, or to help you become a more effective activist within your own community.

I also wholeheartedly recommend picking up a copy of her excellent book, Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning). Remember, the more you know about how the industry works and the tactics they use, the more adept you become at seeing through the PR spin. And, the easier it will be for you to influence others as well.