McDonald's and Coke have blasted New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s radical bid to ban sales of super-sized sodas from foodservice outlets as “misguided”, while supporters have hailed it as the "boldest effort yet" to tackle obesity.
In a statement responding to Bloomberg's proposed ban on sales of sugary beverages in containers larger than 16oz in the city's restaurants, Coca-Cola said consumers had the information to make informed choices.
“We have prominently placed calorie counts on the front of our bottles and cans and in New York City, restaurants already post the calorie content of all their offerings and portion sizes, including soft drinks.
“New Yorkers… can make their own choices about the beverages they purchase. We hope New Yorkers loudly voice their disapproval about this arbitrary mandate.”
NYC Beverage Association: Full-calorie soda sales are down; obesity rates are up
PepsiCo, meanwhile, referred callers to the NYC Beverage Association, which challenged Bloomberg's claim that sugary drinks are the “single largest driver” of obesity, adding:
"By nearly every measure, the contribution of calories from beverages to the diet is declining, yet obesity is still rising. From 1999-2010, full-calorie soda sales have declined 12.5%. Yet, obesity rates rose during this time."
McDonald's advocated a “more collaborative and comprehensive” approach, arguing that "public health issues cannot be effectively addressed through a narrowly focused and misguided ban.”
It added: "We trust our customers to make the choices that are best for them."
CSPI: Boldest effort yet to prevent obesity
However, Center for Science in the Public Interest executive director Michael Jacobson, who welcomed Bloomberg's “pioneering” proposal as “the boldest effort yet to prevent obesity”, said the only way to tackle the problem was to reduce Americans' exposure to "these nutritionally worthless products”.
What is Bloomberg proposing?
The proposal would ban sales of sugary beverages in containers larger than 16oz by any outlet that receives letter grades for food service, including movie theaters, fast food chains, mobile food carts and delis. It would not apply to grocery stores.
The move is aimed at fighting obesity, said Bloomberg, who claimed that 58% of adults and nearly 40% of city public school students in New York City are obese or overweight.
His proposal - which would exclude most dairy-based drinks, diet sodas, alcoholic drinks and 100% juices - targets beverages "sweetened with sugar or another caloric sweetener that contain more than 25 calories per 8 fluid ounces and less than 51% milk or milk substitute by volume as an ingredient”.
It will be submitted to the board on June 12, which will vote after three months of public comment. If it gets the green light, firms will have six months to comply.
What role do sugary drinks play in rising obesity levels?
The role that sugary beverages play in obesity was debated at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) conference last fall when two academics went head to head on stage to tackle the issue. (Click here to read more.)
In the red corner was Dr Theresa Nicklas, professor at the Children's Nutrition Research Center at the Baylor College of Medicine, who said the percentage of energy intakes derived from sugar sweetened beverages was steadily falling, which made it hard to argue that soft drinks were responsible for rising obesity rates.
She also claimed that evidence suggesting sugary drinks played a major role in obesity was inconclusive, with some studies suggesting a link and others not.
Meanwhile, obese people frequently avoided full sugar drinks, she pointed out, while added sugar consumption could explain “virtually none of the variances in adolescents’ BMI scores”.
Finally, singling out one nutrient or product group was not the way to address obesity, she argued. “If we’re going to tax soft drinks, why not tax pizza or donuts? We are righting the wrong battle here. We need a total diet approach.”
Liquid vs solid calories
In the blue corner was Dr Barry Popkin, distinguished professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, who argued that calories from sugary drinks do not fill us up in the same way as solid foods, and that people that consume large volumes of soft drinks are at particular risk of taking in too many calories.
He added: “If we take in 200 calories in liquid, we won’t eat 200 fewer calories from foods [to compensate].”
While calories in, calories out is what influences weight gain or loss, the type of calories still matter, with evidence suggesting that high consumption of refined carbohydrates increased risk factors for cardiovascular disease and metabolic health problems, he claimed.
“You can always say yes, we need more randomized controlled trials, but there comes a time when you have to take a stand… If we’d waited for all the evidence on tobacco to act we would still have been promoting it in 2002.”
CDC: Percentage of daily calories from sugary drinks has risen sharply
According to a guide produced by the CDC in 2010, per capita consumption of sugar-sweetened beverage (SSBs) excluding sweetened milks was 50kcal/day among US adults in 1965 compared with 203kcal/day in 2010.
It added: “Several mechanisms have been proposed to explain the association between SSB consumption and obesity…
“First, individuals may fail to compensate for the added calories consumed as liquid and may result in excess intakes of sugar and calories. Second, the rapid drop in blood sugar that follows the insulin response to consumption of foods high in sugar increases hunger and may thereby increase food consumption.
“The third possible mechanism is the inability of fructose to stimulate hormones that help regulate satiety. Fourth, the inborn human desire for the sweet taste can override normal satiety signals.”
Are sugary drinks making us fat? Click here.