Soda prohibition theory goes flat

J. Justin Wilson Senior Research Analyst, Center for Consumer Freedom
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American kids are gradually getting fatter. But new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is cause for hope. Boys and girls are both eating substantially fewer calories these days than they did in 2000. Since weight management involves balancing the amount of calories in food with the amount we burn through exercise and daily life, this should yield less obesity over time.

Yet declines in calorie consumption haven’t led to significant declines in obesity rates. How can that be? William Dietz, the former director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity at the CDC, recently argued, “The only way that we can explain the decline in calories and the increase in obesity in boys, flat in girls, is that physical activity has declined.”

Unfortunately, the “food police” appear to be tone deaf. They haven’t backed off attacking personal choices as their favored solution. Recently, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) proposed a measure that would ban classic soft drinks of all kinds from the marketplace. CSPI demanded that the Food and Drug Administration take sugar in sodas off the list of ingredients deemed “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). Companies would be forced to reformulate flagship products, everything from soda to gummy worms, by making them taste worse. And while CSPI touts reduced-calorie soft drinks as an alternative in its press statements, the group uses misguided risk assessment models to declare the most common varieties — think Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, and Diet Dr. Pepper — off-limits. Ultimately, it looks like the group doesn’t want anybody drinking anything other than water, and maybe orange juice (which has a similar number of calories).

The intended effect would be to prohibit many of the soft drinks we love today. The justification for this harebrained idea is that it would reduce obesity rates, but soft drinks provide only seven percent of our daily calories. In fact, we consume more added sugars from food than from any single class of drink. Soda bans are completely arbitrary, and will not meaningfully reduce obesity.

There’s another major problem with the proposal. Removing sugar from the GRAS list would discredit the list. The purpose of the GRAS list is to allow safe ingredients into foods while keeping out poisonous substances. Sugars have been eaten by people for at least 10,000 years and are quintessentially safe ingredients. The results of this science-based system have been excellent — while the “patent medicines” of the early 1900s contained hidden poisons including morphine, modern foods contain ingredients that scientists recognize as safe to eat.

The fact that some people overeat something does not mean that its use is not safe. Someone could die from drinking too much water, but no sane person would argue for water control. By pushing to remove cane, beet, and corn sugars, all common and completely safe ingredients, from the GRAS list, CSPI is injecting politics and ideology into a consensus-based, scientific process.

Eating too much of anything (or not exercising enough) can cause obesity. Short of issuing federal ration cards to every American or enacting a North Korea-style famine policy, there’s nothing regulators can do to make everybody eat less.

Ultimately, we need to properly identify the causes of obesity. The existence of soda isn’t one.

J. Justin Wilson is the senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.