The Mountain Times

°F Mon, April 21, 2014

Central Vermont's Most Popular Weekly Newspaper

Cola wars

Last week, the governor of Mississippi, Republican Phil Bryant, signed a bill protecting the God-given right of his constituents to consume enormous sodas.

Dubbed the "Anti-Bloomberg Bill," the new law will prohibit municipal leaders from regulating portion sizes in local eateries, as New York City's soda-disparaging mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to do before his Big Gulp ban was overturned in the state supreme court. The bill was authored by Senator Tony Smith, who, as it happens, is the owner of a barbecue restaurant.

More than a third of Mississippians are obese, the highest percentage of any state. It seems safe to say that, even before this legislation, it was unlikely that any elected official would jeopardize his career by attempting to limit portion sizes in the Deep South - Bloomberg's proposal, let it be noted once more, ultimately failed to go over even in New York. So what was the point of this bill in Mississippi? One might see it as a perverse declaration of pride: yeah, we're fat, and there's nothing you liberals can do to stop us from getting even fatter.

"It is simply not the role of government," said Governor Bryant, "to micro-regulate citizens' dietary decisions. The responsibility for one's personal health depends on individual choices about a proper diet and appropriate exercise." A fair point, maybe.

On the other hand, I recently read an article on Salon.com about "Harvard researchers" who had linked the consumption of soda to "180,000 worldwide deaths a year" - although maybe only in the loose sense in which any of the unhealthy foodstuffs that these particular 180,000 victims of diabetes and heart disease consumed could be linked to their demise. Apparently, Dr. Gitanjali Singh recommends "taxing sugary drinks in the same way as cigarettes, or limiting advertising or access" in order to "reduce usage."
Do you guys remember when soda was not a thing we had to read articles about? It was once, I thought, one of the basic, accepted pleasures of life, ubiquitously advertised but not much thought about or discussed: we all agreed that it was good, that it should never change (as the New Coke fiasco proved), and that, if you were under 21, it was what you were going to drink whenever you went anywhere. Even though the "Coke vs. Pepsi" question loomed large in the culture, we secretly knew that all sodas basically tasted the same and were perfectly fine.

It's hard for me, today, to reformulate my conception of soda. Formerly one of life's staples, it's now supposed to be an evil killer along the same lines as tobacco. It occurs to me that a prior generation of Americans may have had to fight this same psychological battle with cigarettes, struggling against their treasured, wholesome-seeming recollections of the first time they shared a smoke with Dad after a Little League game at age 11 or whatever. Tobacco was normative; then it became a socially shunned poison. This must have been startling, too.

I've looked at Coca-Cola's nutritional facts. Yet, it's somehow hard to credit the notion that soda can make you fat - probably because I have all these memories of thoughtlessly consuming countless cans of it as a child without ever gaining any weight. How many free refills did I get every time my family went to some chain restaurant? And yet . . . nothing. No problem. I remained exactly as skinny as children are supposed to be.

Nevertheless, this memory speaks to two of soda's main problems from a health perspective: first, that it's incredibly appealing to children (and we're in the midst of a "childhood obesity epidemic"); second, that it's incredibly easy to drink an insane amount of it. The carbonation is the culprit, as it is with champagne, so much more dangerous than regular wine: it goes down easy. A 20-ounce bottle of Coke has 30 more calories than a two-pack of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and more than three times as much sugar, yet do you not feel it a little more when you eat a couple Peanut Butter Cups? Do you not taste the sweetness, the heaviness of the chocolate and peanut butter?

Sometimes I think the main reason behind the success of both Coke and Pepsi is that they're not that good. I mean, they're good, yes, but they're not as good as Reese's Cups, for instance. The flavor is nice but not particularly interesting. It feels good to drink it, but no amount of it is ever really "satisfying." The caffeine is enough to keep you awake but not enough to make you jittery, no matter how much you drink. It's like TV: so insidiously painless that you can consume it without noticing. There's no reason not to keep drinking it all day - until you think of the nutritional facts.

So what's going to happen here, finally? Will we one day look at soda drinkers the same way we now look at smokers - that is, with mixed bafflement and scorn? Will I, as a soda drinker, one day be seen as a sad throwback to a stupider era? I don't want to be the last fool, refusing with curmudgeonly stubbornness to acknowledge obvious and crucial health concerns. At that point, I'll just give up on Coca-Cola rather than face the shame.

But I sort of hope it doesn't turn out that way. I'm not exactly siding with Mississippi (anything but that!): I realize that soda companies, like tobacco companies, are helping to destroy the lives of people who don't know better, and these people deserve to be protected. Still - can soda really be that bad? I guess I'm still holding out hope that the scientists will change their minds and decide that it has some good points after all.

I mean, I feel fine. 65 grams of sugar, really? That can't be right, can it?