Soda Calorie Reduction Promise Falls Flat With Consumer Groups

Companies may be taking credit for already declining sales, advocates say.

— -- A pledge by America's largest beverage companies together with Bill Clinton's Alliance for a Healthier Generation on Tuesday that they will slash soda consumption -- not necessarily sugar -- by 20 percent over the next decade is falling flat with some public health groups.

Barry Popkin a nutrition researcher with the University of North Carolina, said the companies are trying to pass off already declining soda sales as progress. Popkin is an independent public health advocate.

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"It's a done deal anyway. It's mainly happened already and rest of the reduction will happen in the next few years no matter what they do," Popkin noted.

Popkin's studies show that calories from sugary beverages have been shrinking in the U.S. by 15 calories a day per capita since 2003 in children and 7 calories a day per capita in adults. Children, for example, drank 382 calories worth of sugar-sweetened beverages daily in 2013, compared to 472 calories in 2003, Popkin said.

Additionally, sugar-sweetened soda sales have been sliding for nearly a decade, down 3 percent last year alone, according to a recent report in Beverage Digest, a trade publication.

"They never said this was a new commitment or that they're taking an extra 20 percent on top of what they've done," Popkin pointed out. "If they push their start date back to say 2008, they can easily show they've reached these goals."

But Christopher Gindlesperger, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association -- the group authorized to speak on behalf of the major soda manufacturers and bottling companies -- clarified that the clock on the initiative starts ticking now.

"It's over the next ten years beginning from yesterday's announcement," he said.

Gindlesperger admitted there is no denying that soda sales are on the decline but said that sliding sales alone would not be enough to drive a 20 percent reduction in soda consumption.

"We can't achieve our stated goals without leveraging our strengths," he said. "That means promoting a sustained interest in smaller portions, water and no- and low-cal beverage options."

Jim O'Hare, director of health policy promotion for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that while his organization welcomes any steps to make Americans healthier, the beverage companies hadn't gone far enough.

"We hope they will begin backing away from their opposition to public health measures that can help prevent diseases like obesity, diabetes and tooth decay that are related to the over-consumption of sugar the industry has been pushing for the last several decades," he said.

O'Hare said he'd like to see the beverage industry support legal initiatives such as "sweet taxes," large serving size bans and health warning labels, which CSPI believes are needed to bring meaningful reductions in the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages Americans guzzle.

Gindlesperger countered that this latest program is only one of many self-imposed moves by the beverage industry to drain beverage calories from the American diet. He pointed to a voluntary halt in soda sales to schools nationwide, which he said cut the calories from soda in school lunches by over 90 percent.

"We know that empowering consumers to make the choices right for them will have a lasting impact on the complex issue of obesity," he said.