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Soda industry sees writing on the wall, but is it enough?

Posted Sep 17 2008 12:54am

I've got good news and bad news. In an attempt to avoid a face-off with government and class action lawsuits, the food industry has finally agreed to limit soft drinks in schools.  But that doesn't mean your kids will be drinking healthy beverages.

Let me explain.

Recently, the American Beverage Association (ABA), which includes Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Cadbury Schweppes, agreed to limit sweetened sodas in schools. The force behind the agreement? The Alliance for a Healthier Generation - a joint initiative of the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association.

On its surface, this agreement is great news. Getting sweetened sodas out of schools is a big advance, and one that seems to help protect our children's health. Kudos to the American Heart Association, The Clinton Foundation, and President Clinton himself for creating public awareness and concrete steps to deal with childhood obesity. In particular, I applaud their new initiatives to improve school lunches, provide nutrition education and wellness programs, and increase physical education and physical activity in schools.

So what's the bad news?

Well, first of all, the ABA is hardly making this change out of the goodness of its heart. It had a chance to remove soda from schools when independent lawyers pressured it to do so-but stopped negotiating when it realized that a photo op with a former President was better than one with a bunch of lawyers forcing its hand. The ABA "sees the writing on the wall and is trying to prevent further legislation and litigation," says Margo Wootan, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

So it agreed to stop selling sugared sodas in our nation's schools. But that's not nearly as big of a sacrifice as you'd think: Only a tiny, tiny fraction of the $63 billion industry's revenue comes from school vending machine sales. The result? A great PR move that has little impact on the bottom line of food companies.

Second, take a look at what's left on the table (or in the halls as the case may be).

You've got diet sodas with aspartame, an artificial sweetener that's been shown to increase appetite and have adverse neurological effects in susceptible people; "sports drinks," which are also full of sugar and high fructose corn syrup; and caffeinated drinks that boost the stress hormone adrenalin in kids who are already frazzled.

Artificial sweeteners are particularly worrisome. (You'll find them listed on labels as neotame, acesulfame potassium, saccharin, sucralose, dihydrochalcones, and, of course, aspartame, also known as NutraSweet®,) They're also very popular: About two-thirds of  adults consume artificial sweeteners.

But just because these sweeteners are everywhere doesn't mean they're not harmful. In fact, plenty of questions remain about their safety-including both their short- and long-term risks.

Aspartame is a good example. Just look at the research.

Aspartame contains small amounts of methanol, a toxic alcohol. But when aspartame heats up-as a can of artificially sweetened soda easily does on a hot day-more methanol is created, boosting the odds of serious toxic effects.

Other studies show that aspartame can actually trigger hunger, making us eat and drink more! Even worse, research suggests that aspartame may disrupt brain chemistry, possibly increasing the risk of seizures, depression, and headaches.

More studies are needed before we can say for sure how safe-or dangerous-aspartame truly is. But do you really want your kids being sold artificially sweetened drinks and becoming human guinea pigs in the meantime?

In the end, I hope that the ABA's changes aren't just lip service but become part of a broader public campaign to address the issues of obesity in children and adults in America. We've got to demand more accountability from our government and the food industry for the unhealthy environment they've helped create.

It's not too late to change: In the 1950s, everyone who took an airplane flight had a pack of cigarettes placed on his or her tray. Now smoking is banned on flights and tobacco companies have been held responsible for the disease and destruction created by their products.

I believe that someday we will look back on the early part of this century as the dark ages when we allowed our society to eat toxic foods.

Here are a few things government and industry can do to make a change for the better:

-  Add small taxes on junk foods and soft drinks to raise funds for anti-obesity campaigns.
-  Place restrictions on food marketing to children, especially in schools and on television.
-  Put calorie labels on fast foods.
-  Make changes in farm subsides to promote consumption of fruits and vegetables.
-  Change campaign contribution laws.
-  Create a government agency that's independent of industry to regulate food, nutrition, and health.

What do you think?  Has the ABA gone far enough or should we demand more accountability from them as well as our congressional leaders?  Post your thoughts below...
 

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