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Could Soda Make The World a Better Place?

We drink a lot of soda in this country. On average, each person drinks about 190 calories a day worth of soda and other sugar sweetened beverages, and (even though we know it’s not good for us) today we drink twice as much soda as people did in 1971. Our habits have fueled a $72 billion industry; an industry that will do whatever it can to keep you sipping that carbonated liquid candy.

sodacans (Source)

Each year, soda companies spend millions of dollars on marketing, trying to frame their products in a positive light … and making sure their brands are everywhere you look. They write catchy jingles, give away fabulous prizes, and sponsor schools and get their names plastered on scoreboards. Anyone who has watched an episode of American Idol has probably seen the Coca-Cola logos all over the place — they’ve been a major sponsor of the show for every season.

coca_ad_brickwall pepsi_ad

The entire food industry spends a lot of money on marketing. But carbonated beverages make up a huge portion of that. Just how huge? Well, according to a recent report on media spending in 2006:

  • Carbonated beverages had the highest marketing expenses related to children (ages 2 – 11) and adolescents (ages 12 – 17) compared to other industries — $492 million in just one year. The next highest was restaurant foods, which came in at $294 million.
  • Carbonated beverage companies spend a lot of money on “new media” (i.e. the web, digital ads, word-of-mouth, viral marketing, etc) – more than any other food or beverage category, in fact. In 2006, they spent $21 million on these forms of marketing.
  • That year, $117 million was spent marketing these beverages using product placements before or in video games and movies watched at home/in theaters, sponsoring athletes/sports teams, celebrity endorsements, and “product branding in conjunction with philanthropic endeavors.”

Soda has become so much a part of our everyday lives that we barely even stop to think about it anymore.

800px-Coca-Cola_car (Source)

But recently, there have been two pretty major developments in the soda-PR world that have got me thinking – just how far will these companies go?

The company behind both initiatives – Pepsi.

Pepsi Refresh

pepsi_refresh Forget fancy giveaways for new “stuff.” Pepsi has now taken it a step further with their Pepsi Refresh Project, a campaign that encourages you to submit (and vote on) grant proposals in the fields of health, culture, food & shelter, the planet, neighborhoods, and education. Their promise in return? Awarding millions of dollars to projects that will make a positive impact in the world.

The campaign asks, “Could a soda really make the world a better place?” And when you take a look at the list of funded and proposed projects, it’s hard to argue. Many of the currently funded initiatives sound amazing – saving babies from spinal muscular atrophy; building a new playground and community garden for a boys & girls club; bringing youth together to help build a cottage for severely abused foster children; helping to save dogs at a no-kill shelter by building a new indoor shelter – and the list goes on and on.

Honestly, I’m not sure how to react to this campaign. On the one hand, I think it’s great that Pepsi has promised so much money to so many worthy causes. But on the other hand – this is a company that is contributing to a rise in obesity and chronic disease across the country (more about this below). Obviously each and every one of us have a choice about whether or not we want to drink soda, but Pepsi isn’t exactly an innocent bystander in all of this. Their marketing techniques are getting more creative (and more pushy) by the minute.

Case in point –

Pepsi Funds Obesity and Nutrition Research

Apparently PepsiCo recently announced funding for a graduate fellowship at Yale School of Medicine’s MD-PhD program. The topic of this fellowship? Nutritional Science Research. Or, more specifically, work that focuses on metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and obesity (ironic, no?). Not only that, but the company has just opened a research lab in Science Park (i.e. right next to Yale) to develop “healthier food and beverage products.”

The Dean of the School of Medicine, Dr. Robert Alpern, has been quoted as saying:

PepsiCo’s commitment to improving health through proper nutrition is of great importance to the well-being of people in this country and throughout the world.

Excuse me — what?? I’m sorry, I must have missed something. You say Pepsi is committed to improving health through proper nutrition?? I understand that they are doing a commendable thing by donating millions of dollars to various organizations, but to say that a soda company supports proper nutrition is stretching it a little too much. Especially when the latest data clearly shows that soda consumption is very very bad for our health. So should we really be happy to have Pepsi’s money funding nutrition research? Is that truly a recipe for honest science?

The {Negative} Impact of Sugar Sweetened Beverages on Health

I’m sure you’ve all heard someone say that lost “x” amount of pounds, just by cutting soda out of their diet. Well the evidence for this is more than anecdotal. There have been many studies that connect soda consumption with weight gain and poor health. For example, a recent article published by scientists at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity (at Yale University, no less – which makes me even more uncomfortable about this new Pepsi-Yale partnership, since this center has been a leader in nutrition research for some time) reviewed 88 different studies that looked at the connection between soda consumption and nutrition and health outcomes. The results of this analysis were pretty clear. Not only did they find that soda drinkers consumed more calories overall (meaning people don’t compensate for the calories they drink by eating less), but they also found a connection between drinking soda and increased body weight, drinking less milk, consuming less calcium and other important nutrients, and a higher risk for developing diabetes.

Another study found that the increased consumption of sugar sweetened beverages in this country has contributed to an estimated 130,000 new cases of diabetes, 14,000 new cases of coronary heart disease, and 50,000 additional life-years burdened by coronary heart disease in the US – just between the years of 1990 and 2000. This has led to at least 6,000 excess deaths from any cause and 21,000 life years lost.

Pretty scary stuff, if you ask me.

Ok…great…so the point is…

So what exactly is my point in ranting writing about all of this? I’m not trying to paint soda as the scapegoat for all the world’s health problems. And I’m certainly not saying that drinking a soda every once in awhile is going to kill you – or even have any long term consequences. Even though I don’t drink it on a regular basis, I have to admit – sometimes a Coke sounds really refreshing (especially when it’s mixed with a little coconut rum! ;)).

My goal is to point out that these companies are trying new angles when it comes to advertising – angles that make them look really good on the surface, but upon closer examination, seem a bit more sinister. I think that corporate responsibility and giving back to the community are great things. In this case, however, it just makes me a little uncomfortable.

But — I’m interested to hear your thoughts. What do you think of the Pepsi Refresh project? And of soda company-funded research? Does it outweigh the health problems caused by drinking soda? And is it really the company’s responsibility to care?

For further reading:

PepsiCo Opens New Haven Research Lab To Develop Healthier Products

Sugar Water Gets a Facelift: What Marketing Does for Soda

The Food Industry Follows Big Tobacco’s Playbook

Effects of Soft Drink Consumption on Nutrition and Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Sugary Soft Drinks Lead to Diabetes, Research Finds

32 Responses to Could Soda Make The World a Better Place?

  1. Very interesting! A school in my district actually applied for a Pepsi Refresh grant so they could build a new playground. I appreciate the project for what it’s giving back to society. The research – that’s a different story! If Pepsi was seriously concerned about nutrition/health, they could easily take certain products right off the shelves. Research is not their goal, selling Pepsi products is. If Pepsi wanted to develop healthier beverages, they wouldn’t have to send millions to research…I’ve got some healthy stuff coming right out of my kitchen faucet! I’m interested in hearing what others think of this.
    Becky´s last post ..Farm to City

    • Exactly. Your last point is so true — if their goal was health, they’d get rid of certain products that are clearly UNhealthy. Selling more products is the ultimate goal. NOT encouraging more people to drink the healthy stuff that’s coming right out of the faucet!

  2. Interesting post! Part of my assistantship in graduate school was helping my department apply for a Pepsi grant, so I knew that the company was pretty good about giving back to the community. But honestly, as I sit here trying to type this comment, I’m realizing that I don’t really know my opinion on this! Part of me wants to say that giving away some money to good causes doesn’t make up for selling a product that is essentially harmful. But at the same time, the harm comes not from the product itself, but by the frequency with which it’s consumed by most people in our society. Is that really Pepsi’s problem? Honestly, I’m not sure!

    Thanks for making me think!
    Katie @ Health for the Whole Self´s last post ..It’s My Party and I’ll Eat What I Want To

    • I didn’t realize how many organizations were applying for these grants. That’s interesting.

      And I agree — it is the frequency with which soda is consumed that’s so awful. But while that’s not directly Pepsi’s fault (they can’t FORCE us to drink soda), they do spend a ton of money on advertising…to encourage us to keep drinking. It just seems like they are finding more and more ways to make their companies look good to fight against all the bad press they’re getting in the health world — and that’s where I get uncomfortable.

      • i do understand what u r saying about advertisments but alwways remember just because the consumption rates are high doesnt mean that more problems occur. I would also like to point out that there is people that drink these as their milk for the cause of there own redemption it is all together there choice to buy so patronising the companies is wrong they sell for their gain and we buy for our desires. One last fact you should think of is the people that consume that makes our society a better place… SAM

  3. Love this post! You put so much work into it :)

    Money talks. When Pepsi donates money to good causes- and to schools- they hope we forget about the negative impact soda and other sweetened beverages have had on our society.

    In theory I’d like to be against Pepsi and other soft drink companies, and McDonald’s and other fast food places because of the rise in obesity and chronic diseases BUT they do so much good too. Look at the Ronald McDonald House. So I don’t have a clue where I stand on the issue either. Great topic though!
    Jen´s last post ..Spent

    • I like the way you put that — money does talk…sometimes louder than any negative evidence or press a company might get.

      But it’s a tough issue. It’s hard to be AGAINST a company giving money to a good cause and providing for their community, but at the same time, it definitely doesn’t erase all the harm they’re doing. If they really cared they would actually make products that were healthy (not pretend to develop them under the guise of research). So in the end, I have to question their intentions.

  4. i mean i think its fantastic that theyre giving back and helping to fund for research yet at the same time its an oxymoron since the whole face of their product isnt even remotely health related. funny huh!!

    xoxo <3

  5. Thank you for the great article. I have been an advocate for removing soda from schools for years. The main push behind PepsiCo and other soft drink companies latest marketing is to change the poor image they have been given as of late. Thousands of schools have already removed soft drink machines and this is great cause of concern to them. Both Pepsi and coke are exporting their products at a record pace to make up sales and addict entire new cultures to their products.

    If more intelligent people such as you continue to discuss the factual truths about soft drinks, eventually someone will notice. Soft drinks should come with a warning label as they have no redeeming value.

    I do disagree with one comment you made however. Even mixed with rum, there is no amount of Coke, Pepsi or other soft drink that is ok to indulge in. Take an old running shoe and leave it soaked in coke. Watch it disintegrate and then imagine your insides doing the same thing.

    Keep up the great work, but next time mix your Coke with something else or try it straight!

    • Thank you for adding to the discussion with such an insightful comment. (although I do think you mean that I should take my RUM straight up, not the coke…haha)

      Anyway, my point in saying that is not to pretend that soda is good for you…in any amount. Because it’s not. But neither is the ice cream I indulge in all too often. Although people would be better off if they removed soda from their diets altogether, it’s not going to do any long lasting damage if you have a little once in awhile (at least, not to my knowledge anyway…). But you’re right, it is pretty disgusting to think about what happens to ANYTHING left in a cup of coke!

  6. Wow, this post definitely made me think. I am always the first to say that soda companies suck (we do NOT need any more sweetened, empty-calorie things in our lives!) but at the same time, these are some great initiatives. Honestly, soda companies aren’t going to go away anytime soon, so I guess for the time being we should be thankful they are at least doing some sort of good. And I have to applaud them for coming out with the mini soda cans, maybe that trend will catch on and people will stop slurping the oversize bottles!!
    Megan @ The Oatmeal Diaries´s last post ..guaranteed this wouldnt happen at beauxbatons

    • I think the mini cans are better than the huge bottles, yes, but at the same time…it just seems like another clever marketing scheme. Like the “100 calorie pack” version of soda. That stuff sells!!

  7. Great post. I myself drink soda sometimes although I try not to drink too many of my calories and I know that one of the reasons is the unavoidable marketing done by these companies. Sports stadiums, movie theatres, billboards you name it and there is an ad telling you how refreshing a cold Coke/Pepsi/whatever would be! Most alarming is how much soda children consume. All that sugar is bad for so many reasons, most of all that it is building a habit that will be hard to break down the road (I know from experience)Its good to see that schools are taking it out of the vending machines but thats just a first step. Everything in moderation and in this case I think that soda is a rare treat at best.

    • I agree. It’s pretty awful how much soda (and just sugar in general) kids are consuming. It’s definitely not healthy, and like you said — forms some really bad habits that are hard to break, and can lead to greater consequences down the line.

  8. When you lay everything out, like you have clearly done, you do take a completely different look at what marketers are communication to consumers.

    I am on the fence on this, only because it’s not just soda it’s 100 other things that could be bad when consumed in large amounts by consumers.

    This is really tough to swallow. Great debate!
    Nichole´s last post ..Running Amok- Putting the Adventure in Racing

    • I have enjoyed the feedbacks because they all prove that the expensive marketing campaigns are working. Many of the responses praise you for your report, but also praise the companies for their community action. This debate is made difficult because Pepsi is now creating a new image as a corporate good guy and not the bad guy heath advocates have been touting. Good for PepsiCo, but bad for us.

      Pepsi and other soft drinks are bad, even in moderation. You will find no evidence to dispute this fact. The community action is great, but is it worth the health of a generation?

      • Another good point! It’s a tough issue because you can’t disregard the fact that they’re allowing many great projects to happen through their donations. …but they’re still causing a lot of harm, and will continue doing so by devising more strategies to frame the company in a positive light.

    • Yes, that’s true. Soda isn’t the root of all evil. And we’re definitely consuming way too much of many foods that are really bad for our health. But at the same time, the strategies of these food and beverage companies are becoming more and more similar to that of tobacco companies (something I might touch more on later) in order to keep us buying their products — even when the health experts tell us it’s bad.

  9. What a GREAT post! I like most people above am torn on my opinion. I definitely do not think that Pepsi is an innocent bystander but they are at least trying to help now…I mean better late than never. Although I see it as a never ending circel because it isn’t like Pepsi is going to stop making soda anytime soon….hum…this is a lot to think about. Great thought provoking post!

  10. Interesting. I have to think Pepsi is generating more publicity for themselves by creating this project. I think it’s fantastic they are giving to so many wonderful causes, but I’m having a hard time comprehending that they are developing “healthier food and beverage products.” Healthier tells me there is some sort of “healthy” factor in their current products, which I don’t see. This really has my gears turning. Great post girl.
    Lindsay´s last post ..Sloppy Garbanzos

    • YES!! Such a great point!! Maybe they should start with developing a product that actually has some real health value.

  11. Whattt?!? That’s ridiculous! If Pepsi really wanted to make the world a better place, then they would

    1. Take HFCS and all the other crap out of their sodas
    2. Replace the aspartame in their diet sodas with something that…idk…doesn’t cause cancer??

    I think this is all clever marketing & business. *Sigh* :(

    haha yes, coke + rum is an exception ;)
    Danielle (Runs on Green)´s last post ..Don’t run in the dark

    • Amen to that!! Thank you!! You said it better than I did.

      But seeing as that’s not going to happen anytime soon, I think we can conclude that their intentions in all of these new initiatives are definitely not pure.

  12. very interesting. have you seen this: http://www.healthyweightcommit.org/? check out the commitment to lower calories by 2015 (RWJ is evaluating the effort).

    i agree, i don’t think that this is being done without major consideration to their brand and their revenue, but i also agree–at least it’s something.

    i worked a while in youth tobacco prevention so a lot of this strikes me as the same way that tobacco companies are philanthropic and support research studies. and put out their own psas, etc.

    i too am conflicted on my feelings.
    andi @ livelaughbefit´s last post ..fire burnin’ fire burnin’ on the dance floor

    • I hadn’t actually heard of that initiative…thanks for sharing! There’s an impressive list of organizations involved! It’s going to be interesting to watch the impact this has over time.

      And I agree, a lot of these strategies are scarily similar to those used by the tobacco industry.

  13. Extremely thought invoking post. For me I choose to no longer drink soda. Not to say I did not love my Dr. Pepper back in the day, but I understand the poor nutritional value of soda and the ill effects it can cause and made a conscious decision to stop despite all the media hype and company PR from the soda industry.

    You are right, they seem to be putting money back into communities and funding research but with what I believe is their own agendas in mind more than for the common good. But that is their business and I am not at all knocking their desire to be successful, which is the America Way, right?

    Do I think that it is their responsibility to care about what they are really doing to us? Sure a part of me would love for all businesses that produce controversial products including artificial sweeteners, vaccines, medications be aware of what they are actually doing I think it all comes down to each individual educating themselves on the truths and taking a personal stand. If we stopped using the products, don’t you think these companies would listen a little harder?
    Bekah @ runtrackmind´s last post ..Hellish Hills

    • Yes…that’s definitely true. We can make a stand with what we choose to (and not to) purchase. But sometimes it can be pretty tough. Not everyone is educated about making healthy choices, and even for a lot of people who are — the environment (physical, nutrition, and social) they live in can make it really difficult to avoid these products. So it’s a tough issue…

  14. Wow Lauren. I am so impressed by the calibre of the research that you put into writing this post. These are really big thoughts–and big questions too–on a really interesting topic. To be truthful, I don’t know what I think about the initiative. It’s almost like the company doesn’t want to delete itself (what company would?) but that they recognize (even though they won’t outwardly admit it, of course) that they’ve contributed to a problem, so it’s like their secret way of paying back. Maybe? It could also be a marketing ploy. Ahhh…why must life be so complicated?! Anyways. I think it really comes down to choice. People have a CHOICE to drink Pepsi. An occasional Pepsi won’t kill anyone. But a person who comes back again and again and develops an addiction to Coke or any other artificial sweetener… well how could we blame the company for that? They’re providing the goods, and however “bad” the goods may be, it’s ultimately OUR choice to purchase them. No one forces people to develop Coke addictions. It’s a matter of exercising your own judgment and control. Do you know what I mean?

    ANYWAYS. THIS COMMENT IS TOO LONG.

    Lots of love,
    Aletheia
    Aletheia´s last post ..Black-out BBQ- A Viable Alternative to Cooking

  15. Great post Lauren! I love your PH topics. The Pepsi Refresh project is something that I can back. This company makes more profit in a year than someone like myself could even begin to fathom. I am definitely supportive of the fact that this profit is being used for a greater good. That being said, I am not supportive of the consumption of soda. Sure, I’ll drink a soda (meaning 8 oz) once a month or so. The problem becomes moderation issue, which is paralleled in some ways by the new fast food lifestyle. Portion sizes are so out of control that its easy to consume 250 calories of sugar without even blinking.

    Funding for the fellowship at Yale is another story. Will the recipients actually be allowed to state the facts about soda consumption? Or fast food? Or any other outlet that involves the sale of soda? In a lot of ways this reminds me of the issues behind health insurance companies investing in fast food companies. Seems like there might just be a bit of conflict of interest. That being said, which is worse: the fact that Pepsi is financially backing this research or soda companies that are doing nothing?

  16. [...] While reading the dailies, I found the following 2 post that I wanted to offer as a Shout Out Should Read:   Teri &  Lauren [...]

  17. One interesting fact is that in Mexico they use Cane Sugar in Coke, and their diet coke contains NO preservatives, which is something the bottles advertise heavily “sin preservativo”. In places like Acapulco, Coke owns the cities street signs and Christmas tree – but the people are not as obese as American Soda/pop drinkers… so what gives?

    I am not sure what the answer is, but as I had mentioned in my last comment soda manufacturers couldn’t care less about health or education.. they care about appealing to consumers and they will do whatever it takes to sell the most product at the highest profit margins possible (IE cheap ingredients)
    Brad´s last post ..I want to prove something

  18. Hey Thanks man its of great help. Keep posting some new and interesting things in future.:)

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