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Soda companies promise to lower customers' calorie consumption, but nutrionists are wary

The campaign to decrease calorie consumption will center around ads and in-store signage encouraging customers to "balance what you eat, drink and do."
Adrian Florido
The campaign to decrease calorie consumption will center around ads and in-store signage encouraging customers to "balance what you eat, drink and do."

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group launched a joint campaign Friday that they say aims to cut the calories their customers consume from sugary drinks by 20 percent within 10 years. They’re launching the initiative in four East L.A. communities, including Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno and East Los Angeles.

At a press conference at the Weingart East Los Angeles YMCA, American Beverage Association President Susan Neely said the campaign will begin by making more zero- and low-calorie options and smaller portion containers available at local stores and restaurants.

"And we’re going to work to increase consumer interest in these beverage choices," Neely said.

The companies plan to do that with a joint marketing campaign that will include ads and in-store signage encouraging customers to "balance what you eat, drink and do." Neely said the campaign aims to "nudge" customers to make more balanced choices.

But it will not discourage customers from consuming the companies’ high-calorie sugary drinks, Neely said. Instead, it will include information about calorie content for different beverages at some points of sale.

The campaign is being launched in partnership with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation -- a group founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation -- with the stated aim of stemming rising obesity rates. But it has been met with skepticism by nutrition experts.

When the campaign was first announced last fall, some experts noted that calorie consumption from soft drinks is already on the decline, and said the campaign would simply allow beverage companies to take credit for it.

In an interview Friday, Marion Nestle, a prominent New York University nutritionist and food writer, said campaign message as vague as "balance what you eat, drink and do" seemed unlikely to change people’s beverage choices. She said she would like to see focus-group results on how residents of low-income neighborhoods like the ones that the campaign is targeting responded to the slogan.

In addition, Nestle said there is an inherent conflict of interest in the beverage association’s campaign.

"Their job is to sell as much product as possible. The sugar-sweetened beverages are the most profitable products that they make, so it’s hard to believe that this is more than public relations," Nestle said. "But I like to keep an open mind about these things, and so let’s watch and see what they do."

At Friday’s press event, Neely said it was remarkable to see representatives from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr. Pepper – three fierce competitors – sitting side by side, all working toward the same goal of reducing calorie consumption.

She said that in addition to the joint campaign, each company will have its own strategies to achieve that goal, and that an independent consultant would monitor the campaign’s progress.

When asked by KPCC what each company’s strategy would look like, Neely looked to the three company representatives sitting nearby, each shaking his head.

"I’m sure they don’t want to share it with their competitors," Neely said. "So I’ll let them off the hook there."