Soda—or pop if you are of that persuasion—is a well-known public health enemy. It delivers a powerful one two punch of empty calories and a lot of sugar. The consumption of soda in the United States has risen dramatically since World War II. Take for example the average size of a soda bottle. Before the 1950s the standard container size was ~6.5 ounces. You know, those little glass Coke bottles that everyone tries to find in antique stores. Contrast that with today’s 12 ounce cans and 20 ounce bottles, which are considered single servings by everyone but government nutritionists.
But, how did soda get to be such a big deal? Rather than spend more than two hundred pages demonizing an industry that has more than its share of detractors Tristan Donovan chronicles the rise of the soda giants in Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World.
While there are other major soda players there is one name that essentially defines the category: Coca-Cola. The Atlanta, Georgia-based company has become the proxy for all discussions about soda and this is for good reason. It’s marketing tactics have defined the category for the better part of eighty or more years coinciding with the introduction of the now-famous Santa Claus ads by Haddon Sundblom. It’s distribution channel is the model favored by the industry. It’s global reach and global brand identity are nearly unmatched anything outside of national governments. Heck, I bet there are corners of the globe where the Coca-Cola logo is more recognizable than the American flag.
The story is interesting because in many ways soda should have been a victim of World War II. Rationing of sugar and the lack of proper substitutes—high fructose corn syrup would not be available to soda makers until later—should have crippled the industry and taken the brand images outside of the consideration set of the world population. However, Coca-Cola allied itself quite amazingly with the U.S. military and, by extension, the victories of the U.S. military. Soldiers on battlefields across Europe and the Southeast Asia came to see a bottle of Coca-Cola as a piece of home and by permission of the U.S. military Coca-Cola was going to provide those bottles. It also helped that the U.S. military helped the company build bottling plants to supply soldiers all over the world and when the soldiers went home those plants supplied the populations left behind. I am sure that if you asked an official historian there would be little mention of this nice government subsidy in the history of the company.
More frightening, in my opinion, than anything else is just how pervasive soda has become in our modern lives. Take for example:
- Soda now comprises approximately 9% of our daily caloric intake in the U.S. up from 4% in the 1970s
- Children get nearly 11% of their daily caloric intake from soda or other sugar drinks
It’s easy to see how this has become such a problem. Think about how close the nearest soda is to you right now. If a soda is not in your refrigerator or on your desk, how far away is a vending machine or location that sells soda? I am guessing that within a few minute walk everyone who will ever read this blog has access to a Coke. I have been on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert and seen a small refrigerated case with the familiar red and white logo. About the only place I can remember being free of western soda brands was Cuba. Soda was still present, but just not the familiar brands back home.
But the health impacts of this sweet obsession are equally appalling:
- If you regularly consume 1 or 2 cans of soda per day you have a 26% greater risk of developing Type II diabetes as opposed to a person who rarely consumes soda
- In men, a 1 can a day habit has been shown to raise the risk of heart disease by 20%
A lot of these debilitating effects can be traced back to sugar and HFCS, which has for the most part supplanted real sugar in soda in the U.S. Don’t believe me? Read David Gillespie’s Sweet Poison.
Tristan Donovan’s Fizz is an excellent way to gain an understanding about how a sugary drink became such an integral part of our social and economic fabric.