Plan to reduce ‘calorie consumption’ of soda raises questions about methods

Posted by
September 30, 2014


It’s no secret that the soft-drink industry is experiencing some hard times.

And now the purveyors of what used to be known as “soda pop” are desperately seeking new ways to convince American consumers not to dispense with these body-and-brain-ravaging beverages – especially with the drumbeat of negative publicity they’ve been getting in the media of late.

But they have a plan in place they hope will reverse that trend and restore the popularity of their flagship products, as well as head off proposals in both Congress and local jurisdictions to impose new taxes on them.

While part of the plan has been openly announced by the nation’s three biggest carbonated beverage companies — Pepsi, Coke and the Dr. Pepper/Snapple Group — at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, the way in which it will be implemented is still a secret. But what we couldn’t help noticing was how the attention was diverted from the real culprits that have caused soft drinks to become such unhealthy products and focused on another one instead.

1957 ad for 7Up

1957 ad for 7Up — without HFCS

What the trio of soda manufacturers pledged, in an agreement with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation, was to cut a whopping one-fifth of the beverage calories that each person consumes by the year 2025.  Nowhere, however, was there any mention of eliminating the high fructose corn syrup that has come to replace sugar (and is often confused with sugar) in these so-called “sugary drinks,” but which has a far different metabolic effect that major studies have linked to the present epidemics of obesity and diabetes, as well as other ailments like pancreatic cancer.

Nor, for that matter, was there any reference to recent research that found consumption of diet soda containing artificial sweeteners might also be contributing to the onset of type 2 diabetes by interfering with gut bacteria.

The initiative, has also been characterized by conflicting descriptions of what it will involve.

According to initial news accounts, there won’t be any real attempt to reduce the caloric content of the beverages themselves, but merely measures such as reductions in container sizes and promotion of bottled water sales and “calorie awareness.”

But that’s not what was indicated by PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi in an interview with PBS correspondent Judy Woodruff.   The company, Nooyi said is “looking at reformulations, fundamental investment in R&D to search for new ingredients, new sweeteners, so people can still get a great experience in a beverage, but at a much lower calorie.”

New ingredients? New sweeteners?  What might she mean by that, exactly?

The two tricksters waiting in the wings

One distinct possibility is that such “reformulations” will include the addition of Sweetmyx, the “phantom flavoring agent” that we reported back in March would be “making its debut in beverages manufactured by Pepsi” and would probably be represented as simply an “‘artificial flavor’ or perhaps an ‘artificial sweetener,’ with the only other clue to its presence being a magical reduction in calories.”

As we noted at that time, the claim by the additive’s manufacturer, Senomyx, Inc. that it was granted generally recognized as safe, or GRAS status by the Food and Drug Administration, was disputed by that agency. It turned out to have been given that designation by a “third party organization,” the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, in keeping with a 1997 proposed rule that would have allowed GRAS declarations to be made on a voluntary basis, but was never finalized.

What we also pointed out is that all we know about Sweetmyx is that it’s a “sweetener enhancer” that tricks your taste buds into perceiving a sweet flavor that’s really not there, and that it could well turn out to be another “excitotoxin” like aspartame that could cause neurons to self-destruct.

There’s also another possibility – that a reduction in calories could be achieved by the addition of HFCS-90, the form of high fructose corn syrup that’s 90 percent fructose and has been described by a leading manufacturer, Archer Daniels Midland, as the “ideal choice for reduced calorie foods such as beverages, jellies and dressings.” (In fact, PepsiCo already owns a patent on a method of using it to produce a reduced-calorie beverage.)

While the FDA supposedly does not permit HFCS formulations to be more than 55 percent fructose, industry claims that HFCS-90 has been used with the agency’s knowledge for decades.

The use of HFCS-90, in fact, it what primarily spurred our sponsoring organization, Citizens for Health, to file a petition with the FDA to require that precise amounts of fructose in products that contain HFCS be labeled. (Read and sign that petition here.)

Whether the soft-drink industry is now contemplating using either or both of these methods to achieve that promised 20 percent reduction in calories over the next decade remains to be seen. But if it is, what American Beverage Association President Susan Neely has predicted will be “the single largest voluntary effort by an industry to help fight obesity” could conceivably even end up making the obesity epidemic worse than it already is.

As for the “calorie awareness” part, however – well, that’s already the focus of a newly launched, full-fledged campaign, which we’ll be talking about in our next blog. Stay tuned.