MARION NESTLE is hardly the first person to be appalled by the improbable success of Pepsi and Coca-Cola, those twin behemoths of the global corporate stage whose instant brand recognition and extraordinary cultural influence have been built on, of all things, the sale of carbonated sugar water.
The French were complaining about “Coca-colonization” as early as 1950, and the first alarmist medical reports about the effects of too much sugar on young metabolisms soon followed. Not that these did anything to slow the soda companies’ success; if anything, they were taken as confirmation that the companies had arrived. Coke and Pepsi were, for better or worse, symbols of a carefree, all-American optimism in the wake of two devastating world wars — a distillation of an idealized, eternal adolescence that broke with the strictures of an older generation. No surprise, then, that the more the grown-ups scolded, the more appealing the drinks became. The dyspeptic cultural critic George W. S. Trow recognized this in his 1980 New Yorker essay “Within the Context of No Context” and found it infuriating, one more indication of what he saw as the irredeemable vulgarity of popular culture. “Consider the real role in American life of Coca-Cola,” he wrote. “Is any man as well-loved as this soft drink is?”
I grew up on another continent, in a household without Coca-Cola, so I don’t claim to have an authoritative answer to Trow’s question. Then again, neither does Nestle, one of the country’s most respected and outspoken nutritionists who, for many years, has articulated heartfelt moral outrage against the many corporate manipulations of the American diet, and has now trained her sights squarely on the soda industry. (She is, incidentally, unrelated to the founders of the Swiss food multinational, which carries an acute accent on the final “e”; she pronounces her name like pestle, or bristle.) Her new book, Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (And Winning) (Oxford University Press), will almost certainly further her reputation for scientific precision and exhaustive attention to detail. It is, in many ways, a sequel (or an appendix) to her 2002 book Food Politics (University of California Press), which made a similar, and similarly exhaustive, case that agribusinesses are more interested in making money than in providing people with healthy food to eat. Nuance, though, isn’t her thing. To her, the world is more black than white; she sees it as her mission as a scientist to try to redress the balance using all the facts at her disposal. She isn’t much interested in exploring why people love to drink soda, only in telling them why they shouldn’t.
Certainly, Nestle does not lack for material. She denounces the “empty calories,” the disastrous health effects of excess sugar, the tireless lobbying of politicians, school districts, and health organizations, the campaigns to silence critics and kill hostile political initiatives, and the PR shine — Nestle calls it a “health halo” — that soda companies give themselves through corporate responsibility programs. As Nestle sees it, Big Soda is as nefarious as Big Tobacco, and for many of the same reasons: it uses its marketing and lobbying power to conceal the adverse health effects of its products and will do almost anything to keep pushing sales and satisfy the sky-high expectations of its shareholders. Nestle draws parallels, too, in her proposed solutions. She wants taxation, government health warnings, and strict limits on where and when soda companies can advertise.
It’s hard to fault the worthiness of these goals, especially now. The soda companies themselves recognize that obesity poses a disquieting threat to their continued prosperity, and sooner or later something will have to give. Ultimately, though, Nestle is too focused on denouncing the problem to engage much with its complexities. Not for her the Zen moment of Don Draper dreaming up the perfect Coca-Cola ad in the final moments of Mad Men; she could not be less drawn to the quintessentially American twilight space between myth-making and reality. Likewise, she shows little of Trow’s interest in unpacking the salesmanship and commodification inherent in celebrity, or vice versa. She is merely furious that Beyoncé would license her name and her admirably slender figure to Pepsi at a time when childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes have reached epidemic proportions. She is disappointed that the White House did not rescind Beyoncé’s invitation to sing at Barack Obama’s first inaugural, as some anti-soda activists urged at the time, and frustrated that Michelle Obama has continued to work with Beyoncé on her White House campaigns to improve the health and diet of underprivileged children. If these were calculated decisions, based on a careful weighing of the pros and cons, Nestle doesn’t want to know about them.
Nestle writes like an investigator hunting every possible scrap of damning material for a prosecutorial brief, which will no doubt make her book an excellent resource for activists and reformers seeking remedies in Washington, in the courts, and, perhaps, in the aisles of the local supermarket. In her zeal, though, she leaves us with only a partial picture of how we reached this crisis point, and little in the way of a roadmap — despite the promise of her subtitle — to get to the solutions she desires. It’s one thing to want people to stop drinking Coke and to recite all the excellent reasons why; quite another to figure out how to make it happen.
My parents didn’t ban Coca-Cola exactly when we were growing up; they didn’t have to. We were trained, in our leafy corner of the outer London suburbs, to think of it as beneath us, an American monstrosity. We were allowed to drink half-glasses of beer and wine with our dinner when we were as young as nine or 10, but soda was beyond the pale. It never even occurred to us to want it. Just once, so the story went, my oldest brother bought a Coke so he could leave a baby tooth in it overnight as a science experiment. By morning, the tooth had vanished without a trace.
For years — until I read Nestle’s book, in fact — I didn’t know whether to believe this story, or think of it as one more piece of Gumbel family anti-American propaganda. (My grandmother, a refugee from Nazi Germany who was forever grateful she landed in Britain instead of the other side of the Atlantic, liked to tell us that Americans had no souls, and Coca-Cola was high on the list of exhibits proving her case.) There were no particular restrictions, when I was growing up, on British-made fizzy drinks, drinks with names like Tango and Tizer that were probably just as stuffed with sugars as Coke or Pepsi but didn’t carry the same cultural baggage. And they did no measurable harm; I’ve never had a filling in my life.
As it turns out, though, the story is true, and the experiment has been replicated many times in junior high school science classes. A Cornell professor named Clive McCay started dissolving teeth in glasses of Coca-Cola in the early 1950s and mounted a campaign alerting soda drinkers to the dangers of tooth decay. According to Nestle, it isn’t just the sugars in soda that cause the corrosion; the effect is compounded by phosphoric and citric acids that are added to Coke and Pepsi to offset the cloying sweetness. She points to examples in Ecuador and El Salvador where the pristine teeth of the population began to show alarming symptoms of aggressive decay as soon as the first Coke and Pepsi bottles arrived.
If you want an object lesson in how the soda industry deals with adversity, you could do worse than note what happened after McCay began to publicize his experiments. First, he and his fellow campaigners were denounced as “food faddists” (a term of abuse at the time, apparently), “communists,” and “crackpots.” Then, Coca-Cola offered thousands of dollars in grants to Fred Stare, chair of nutrition at Harvard Medical School, and Stare wrote letters in which he denied that Coke caused cavities. Stare even wrote an article for McCall’s magazine recommending “soda, ice cream, or a Coke” as an appropriate mid-afternoon snack for teenagers.
It’s been much the same story since. The two soda giants love to co-opt academic institutions and professional organizations in a position to sway opinion on public health, and they love to shoot down overinsistent bearers of bad news. In 2003, for example, the Coca-Cola Foundation donated a million dollars to the charitable arm of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry to send a message that the company truly cared about the state of children’s teeth. Coincidence or not, the Academy’s policy statement a few years later noted that sodas have been associated with tooth decay but stopped short of recommending that children avoid them. Instead, it engaged in a form of linguistic abstraction that has a habit of afflicting public bodies after extended contact with the soft drinks industry; it stressed the importance of “educating the public about the association between frequent consumption of carbohydrates and caries.” A more honest rendering of this would have been: “Don’t give your children Coke. Too much Coke rots your teeth.” But, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest pointed out at the time, Coca-Cola had effectively paid for “innocence by association.”
Blunt talk is something the soda companies do their best to avoid, except when it comes to dismissing their critics. Detractors are typically demonized as enemies of consumer choice — long since established as the go-to argument for cigarette manufacturers, fast-food conglomerates, and other purveyors of things that are manifestly bad for us. And it’s a lousy argument. Coca-Cola and Pepsi clearly believe they have a right to manipulate consumers and create demand for their products that might not otherwise exist — why else spend billions each year on marketing and advertising? But as soon as someone makes an attempt to sway consumers in the opposite direction, it is characterized as a threat to market capitalism and the American way of life. Unsurprisingly, Nestle herself has been targeted for just this sort of criticism. A group sponsored by Coca-Cola, the Center for Organizational Research and Education, described her a few years ago as “one of the country’s most hysterical anti-food industry fanatics” with “radical goals.”
One can understand the hostility. Nestle once told The New Yorker that “the best thing Pepsi could do for worldwide obesity would be to go out of business.” By any measure, though, “hysterical” is the wrong word for her. Her tone is almost preternaturally calm — and relentless. In the book she even faults herself for that New Yorker quote, finding her remark too harsh and facetious to be worthy of her high professional standards.
Unquestionably, Nestle is at her best falling back on her scientific expertise. With forensic precision, she examines the contents of the soda itself and finds that, contrary to the claims of the competing companies and the entrenched beliefs of millions of consumers, they do not vary significantly. Each 12-oz drink, regardless of the manufacturer, contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar (almost always in the form of high fructose corn syrup), some caramel color, those phosphoric and citric acids, an insignificant quantity of caffeine, and a sprinkling of natural flavors (coca plant extract — sometimes erroneously taken to be a derivative of cocaine — lime juice, vanilla extract, and the oils of orange, lemon, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, and bitter orange).
Scientific taste tests have shown over and over that if consumers can’t see the can or bottle that the soda comes in, they can’t tell if it’s a Coke, a Pepsi, or some generic brand promoted by their local supermarket chain. (Distinctions in flavor do apply to diet sodas, but for the most part these are outside Nestle’s field of interest.) The mystique surrounding Coca-Cola’s much-ballyhooed “secret recipe” is thus revealed as no more than a marketing ploy to make the drink seem more sophisticated and interesting than it is.
Although not new, this is a breathtaking revelation, because it demonstrates that Coca-Cola and Pepsi aren’t really drink manufacturers at all. For close to a century, they have made an extraordinary living from the power of suggestion, spinning fantasies and projecting cultural tropes at will, with almost nothing to back them up. Nestle refuses to find anything admirable in this triumph of pure salesmanship, but it is, in its way, a form of genius. The soda wars have imprinted themselves on the Middle East crisis (Arabs drink Pepsi; Israelis Coke). They led the charge into China after Nixon’s visit in 1972 and pushed into Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They have even inserted themselves into this country’s racial politics. (Pepsi is the Africa-American soda, hence the recruitment of Beyoncé and, before her, Michael Jackson; Coca-Cola, which has a strong presence in Mexico, is more popular with Latinos.) In every case, people have fallen for it, believing what the marketing departments have encouraged them to think about the way their carbonated drink reflects who they are. One Coca-Cola executive quoted by Nestle describes soda as “the nearest thing to capitalism in a bottle,” but really it is the nearest thing to nothing in a bottle. If it weren’t for the alarming effects of the sugar on obesity and tooth decay, it might have gone down as the most beautiful, most astonishingly transparent scam in history.
As I read Soda Politics, I kept waiting for Nestle to deliver a sucker punch, some new and devastating revelation about the industry to propel her public health advocacy efforts forward. But that revelation never came. One thing that earned Food Politics widespread public attention a decade ago was Nestle’s description, based on her own experience within the federal bureaucracy, of how the big food companies used their lobbying power and their ability to sway elections through campaign contributions to deter politicians and government agencies from advising the public to cut consumption of sugar and red meat — or indeed to cut consumption of anything. Instead, they launched us into an abstract world of food chemicals (carbohydrates, triglycerides, polyunsaturated fats, and the like) in which we were urged to find our own balance, as though we were chemists dispensing droplets from a pipette. (Her account was later reprised in Michael Pollan’s 2008 bestseller, In Defense of Food.)
On the soda industry, however, Nestle has no particular insights of her own, just the reporting of others that she faithfully offers up whenever it bolsters her case. Thus we learn about Todd Putman, a Coca-Cola marketing executive for three years in the late 1990s who now feels a “karmic debt” to the world for all the soda he sold. Putman first went public in 2012, describing how the company’s preoccupation was with “share of stomach” and that the sole preoccupation of the marketing division was to ask: “How can we drive more ounces into more bodies more often?”
Putman confirmed many things that Nestle and other activists had long suspected: that lower-income Latinos and African Americans were specific targets for the industry because they were believed to be more susceptible to sugary drinks, or that Coca-Cola compensated for its vow not to market directly to children under 12 with a determination to go after them “like a bunch of wolves” thereafter.
What Nestle does not discuss is how Putman and his former boss at Coca-Cola, Jeffrey Dunn, have chosen to pay off their karmic debt. They work for Bolthouse Farms, one of the top sellers of the baby carrot, which packages a variety of fruits and vegetables in the form of snacks, smoothies, and so on, and uses the Coca-Cola marketing playbook to make them as appealing as possible. Putman’s view, as expressed in a speech he gave at a Bay Area childhood obesity conference last year, is that a war is raging over the American diet; a war that, despite his own company’s success, the soda companies are still winning.
Nestle, however, appears to want no part of that fight. She told Austin Kiessig of the food blog Edible Startups that she doesn’t think food should be marketed to children in any form, healthy or otherwise. She also has a blanket aversion to processed food — even bagged salad. “I don’t think anyone should eat any processed food at all,” she said.
Kiessig has a problem with that, and he’s right to. “Nestle comes across as someone who has made perfect the enemy of good,” he wrote after meeting her last year. Nestle’s new book does nothing to improve that perception. She may have an inexhaustible appetite for research, but she is no political strategist. Her idea of victory is getting the citizens of Berkeley to pass a soda tax, as they did in 2014, despite a multimillion-dollar industry effort to stop them. One local activist she quotes in Soda Politics even likens the campaign to the Battle of Thermopylae, “when a vastly under-resourced and outnumbered few defended and held off hordes of invaders.”
Please. Berkeley, as Nestle herself acknowledges, is not where the problem lies and, with more foodies per square inch than just about anywhere, is no model for a broader-based solution. The obesity epidemic is hitting hardest at the poorer half of the population, the half that, as she writes, is “more likely to be male, young, single, poorly educated, low-income, blue-collar, Hispanic or African American.” That’s the population in need of intervention, the population where Putman believes the war needs to be waged. The weapon Nestle brings to that war is her arsenal of facts and rational arguments, but as Putman points out, the soda industry works on emotion, not rationality. Rationality, as a marketing tool, does not work.
The most frustrating thing about Soda Politics is that the people most in need of learning the facts it presents are never going to read it. It is indeed appalling that per capita production of soda in this country has quadrupled over the past 60 years, that Coca-Cola and Pepsi now manufacture enough to provide every man, woman, and child with a 12-oz bottle or can every day. But Nestle does little or nothing to bridge the class divide between those consuming the drinks and those, like her, moved to righteous rage about their effects. Most Americans, sadly, are now conditioned to think that what they eat and drink can be either good or cheap, but not both. The European concept of nutritious food (and wine) accessible to all — a concept my parents grew up with — has never caught on here for a variety of political, economic, and cultural reasons. In our era of trendy “farm to table” restaurants and overpriced organic juices, it seems more remote than ever. Nestle doesn’t engage with that conundrum, or have much of an answer for it.
Andrew Gumbel is a Los Angeles–based journalist and writer and a longtime foreign correspondent for British newspapers.