America pledges to cut calories in sugary drinks

With growing concern over rising levels of obesity and related lifestyle diseases, the largest soda manufacturers in the United States of America have pledged to cut calories in sugary drinks by 20 percent in the next ten years through education, marketing and packaging.

Calorie counts have been cause for concern for some time by authorities and nutrition specialists, because more than one-third of adults in America are obese, which also places them at risk for other serious health conditions. According to government data in 2007-2008, 34 percent of adults were obese and by 2011-2012, 35 percent were. In 2011-2012, 16.9 percent of children aged 2 to 19 were obese, exactly what it was in 2007-2008.

The American Beverage Association, whose members include Coca-Cola Co, PepsiCo Inc., and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group Inc., and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, announced the plan at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York this week. They believe this “is the single-largest voluntary effort by an industry to help fight obesity.”

The companies say they are committed to leveraging their marketing, innovation and distribution strengths to increase and sustain consumer interest in and access to smaller portion sizes, water and no- and lower-calorie beverages. They will also be providing calorie counts, and promoting calorie awareness on all beverage company-controlled point-of-sale equipment nationwide.

In addition they’ve undertaken to focus efforts in communities where there has been less interest in and/or access to options that help consumers reduce their calories. Local market efforts will include promoting water and no-and lower-calorie beverage consumption as well as other strategies such as merchandising, product placement and couponing to drive interest in and improve access to these choices.

Calorie-reduction initiatives have been tabled before by the Alliance. Reports show that in 2006 the American Beverage Association and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation also partnered to reduce beverage calories in schools. Then in 2010, sixteen of the biggest U.S. food and beverage companies, including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, pledged to remove 1 trillion calories from the U.S. marketplace by 2012 and 1.5 trillion by 2015.

In January this year, companies in the foundation said they had collectively sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories in the United States in 2012 than in 2007. However, independent analysis done by University of North Carolina researchers and published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine last week, suggests the total calories from packaged goods sold to households with children by those companies did not change from 2011 to 2012.

Some nutrition analysts in America say the progress against obesity has stalled and suggest the reason why a reduction in calories sold has not automatically translated into a reduction in obesity, is due to dietary imbalances in the diet of Americans. Speaking to Fox news, Obesity expert Kevin Fontaine of the University of Alabama at Birmingham says that an imbalance of protein, fats and carbohydrates in a diet may be more important for weight than calories alone.

In the same week of this announcement, new research released by Journal Nature suggests artificial sweeteners may be detrimental in some people by preventing the way in which their bodies handle sugar. Adding more artificial sweeteners may also not be the solution.

The study conducted by researchers in Israel suggests that the sweeteners change the composition of normal, beneficial bacteria in the gut, which appears to have an effect on how well the body handles sugar in the diet. This in turn can result in higher blood sugar levels. Yanina Pepino of Washington University in St. Louis said the results make a convincing case that sweeteners hamper the body’s handling of sugar by altering gut bacteria. And it adds to her belief that sweeteners and sugar should be used in moderation, especially by children. ‘‘It’s really providing strong data suggesting we need to do more research,’’ she said.

As more academics around the world warn that sugar is becoming as dangerous as alcohol and tobacco, the pledge by the American Beverage Association to cut calories in drinks should be welcomed. If sugar is as addictive as the research is saying, then clearly we all need less of it.