Dr. Marion Nestle on Soda Politics

NestleBy: Chuck Schwerin

Dr. Marion Nestle, renowned nutritionist and author  of the recently-released Soda Politics (Oxford University Press) was scheduled to address an IMS audience at 5:00 p.m. on April 28th, followed by a book-signing at home of the College of Community and Public Affairs (CCPA) at the University Downtown Center.  The University bookstore was prepared with four of her latest works and upwards of 75 people from the University and community were expected. Marion Nestle is a big deal in the world of nutrition. The Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, she had just returned from a successful trip to Australia, where her views on revelations about the soda industry’s financial support of academic studies on soda and obesity had made a splash in the Aussie press.

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Click here to read her interview in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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At 2:00 Marion called me to say there was a problem; a close friend might have just had a heart attack and she was waiting to accompany him to the hospital. Despite all, she said, she was still hoping to make it to Binghamton, but could I come get her in Ithaca if the health scare proved a false alarm.

Her ability to compartmentalize astounded me and I assured her the lecture was a lower priority. I was already anticipating all the logistics that would have to be unraveled if the event were to be cancelled.  I called Dean Bronstein and updated her on Marion’s plight; she expressed alarm for the condition of Marion’s friend and also asked me to work out a decision with her about the lecture.

I called Marion back and said, “Let’s keep our options open. I’ll come to Ithaca. If you feel he is stable and can leave for a couple of hours I will shuttle you down and back.” I wondered whether an epic was in the offing.

At 4:30, while her friend waited for the medical community to sort out what had happened, we arrived at the Downtown Campus and Marion, all business, set about making sure the computer/projector setup was to her liking for her well-oiled talk.

Her lecture, sponsored by the Organized Research Center, the Institute for Multigenerational Studies (IMS), began with a nod to the political reactions to a proposed soda tax in Philadelphia. Only Berkeley, California has managed to pass such a tax in an America city; Mayor Bloomberg’s efforts to do so in New York City crashed under the weight of intense soda lobbying efforts. Now, Mayor Kenney was trying a new tack: revenue from the three cents-per-ounce tax (three times what Berkeley managed to impose) would  be directed to fund universal pre-K education in the city. Hillary Clinton, Marion announced, was squarely behind the measure while her Democratic counterpart, Bernie Sanders, was against it, stating it was a regressive tax.

On the dual screens in Room 220 the audience saw shocking graphics of how much sugar (10 teaspoons) is contained in a single 12-ounce can of Coke, and we learned from Marion that 1/3 to 1/2 of all sugar in our diets comes from soda, and that the amount consumed in this country is equivalent to one 12-ounce can per person per day.

The interest the Australian press took in Marion emanated from her critique of the plethora of ostensibly objective research papers that have actually been underwritten by the soda industry and, in particular, those studies that purport to show that obesity is due to lack of physical activity, not the food and drink we ingest.

Marion pointed to hundreds of studies that, in the past, put to rest the notion that soda intake is closely correlated with obesity and the onset of Type-II diabetes and she excoriated those recent (industry-sponsored) papers that reported otherwise. She said that the arithmetic just doesn’t add up; one would have to exercise to death to burn off the calories soda introduces in order to fend off weight gain. The backlash from criticism leveled at the soda industry’s support of such studies by Marion and others has been swift. Coke just decided to suspend funding of all academic research.

The audience, fully engaged, asked many questions, including whether fruit juice is any better than soda in terms of sugar intake. Marion differentiated the two on the basis of the nutritional value that fruit juice contains and the fact that juice is not typically ingested as a substitute for water, as is soda.

While recent trends in sports drinks and other designer water products appears to suggest that Americans are choosing not to drink soda at the same rate as perhaps they had historically, the industry is adjusting by diversifying their product mix to include such alternatives and by advertising soda more heavily in other parts of the world. In Africa alone, Marion stated, Coke spends $17 billion annually promoting its eponymous drink.

After the stimulating lecture and a little while accommodating book buyers Marion joined me for the ride back to Ithaca.  When we arrived, her friend had dinner waiting for us on the table, still sporting a bandage from the I.V. that had disrupted his afternoon’s gardening. Epic dodged and lecture enjoyed.

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