Jennifer Lacy-Nichols reviews Marion Nestle’s “Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning),” a book that explores the political strategies used by the soft drink industry.
In Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning), Marion Nestle explores the political strategies used by the soft drink industry to promote the continued consumption of sugary drinks and block nutrition policies that threaten sales. Nestle’s key argument is that the bottom line of the soft drink industry fundamentally conflicts with public health, leading the industry to exercise every possible avenue to undermine public health solutions to obesity. Like Nestle’s earlier Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (2002), this book draws on her personal experience in nutrition policy and advocacy and provides a behind-the-scenes view of the politics of food and nutrition policy.
Nestle takes a thematic approach, addressing four facets of the soft drink industry’s response to obesity: its contribution to the problem; its “soft” responses that position the industry as “part of the solution”; its “hard” responses that exercise political power behind the scenes; and the responses of public health advocates that challenge Big Soda. Nestle draws on an extensive variety of material to reveal the astonishing scope of the soft drink industry’s political strategies: lobbying, campaign financing, research funding, partnering with health organizations, product reformulation, nutrition education, sports philanthropy, self-regulation, marketing in the developing world, and more. For scholars and the interested public, Soda Politics serves as an excellent introduction to the politics of obesity and nutrition policy.
Nestle’s most compelling chapters are those where she dives deep into specific cases, such as the evolution of the industry’s efforts to oppose mandatory restrictions on marketing to children and the expulsion of soft drinks in schools. In chapters eleven and twelve, she constructs a chronological narrative of the history of these battles and debates. By situating the soft drink industry’s strategies within their historical context, these chapters illustrate the intersections between government and industry policies and the different avenues of political influence pursued by the soft drink industry.
The other especially novel contribution of Soda Politics is the chapter on Dr. Derek Yach. (In)famous for his departure from the World Health Organization (WHO) and subsequent employment at Pepsi, Yach is subject to both applause and censure for his decision to work from within the food industry. Drawing on historical documents and personal experience, Nestle uses the example of Yach to consider the ongoing debate within the public health community as to how best to engage with the food industry: tobacco-like command and control, laissez-faire free markets, or public-private partnerships and compromise. Nestle also gave Yach the opportunity to comment on drafts of the chapter, and these reflections from Yach offer greater insight into the perspective of a man who championed nutrition policy, unsuccessfully fought the sugar industry, saw the WHO slash its nutrition department, and then ultimately decided that he could be more effective working from “within” than opposing from “outside.” Nestle includes her own analysis, disagreeing with Yach’s conclusions, but the reader is left with an unresolved dilemma to contemplate: is opposition or compromise the better political strategy?
The breadth of Nestle’s coverage is both a strength and weakness of the book. Nestle’s analysis of the negative responses of the soft drink industry is extensive and builds on her previous analysis of the food industry. However, her analysis of the industry’s “positive” responses leaves questions unanswered. Nestle claims that “softer” corporate social responsibility strategies foster industry credibility and minimize the risk of regulation, but she does not elaborate on how this manifests for the soft drink industry. How does corporate health promotion facilitate industry participation in policy making? In what ways does corporate self-regulation blur the boundaries between public and private spheres of influence? Perhaps chapters twenty-one and twenty-two, which discuss Coca-Cola’s and Pepsi’s environmental philanthropy, could have addressed these questions as well.
Lastly, the title of the book posits that public health activists are “winning” in the battle against Big Soda (although Nestle does note that advocacy has focused predominantly on the Global North). This begs the question: who or what is the battle against? Nestle focuses on the flagship carbonated soft drinks, as well as the biggest actors: the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo. While this helps to focus her analysis on the least healthy beverages and the most powerful actors, it raises questions about the contribution of other soft drinks or other beverage companies in obesity. Should sweetened organic milk, unsweetened juice, “craft” sodas or other “better-for-you” beverages equally high in free sugars receive the same scrutiny? Brand diversification is one way that food and beverage companies are responding to obesity and de-risking their businesses. This strategy also helps companies expand into new markets, grow their economic power, and position themselves as “part of the solution” to obesity. Second, while Coca-Cola and PepsiCo dominate the U.S. beverage market, in other parts of the world, they compete with smaller, local companies who also manufacture sugary beverages but lack the political power of Big Soda. To what extent should our focus be on the product versus the producer?
Nestle leaves readers with a call to arms: taking on the soft drink industry and contesting its power requires greater scrutiny and understanding of the industry’s business and political strategies. This appeal is relevant to all researchers and activists who seek to challenge the power of large corporations—whether in the interest of health, sustainability, labor conditions, civil liberties, or other issues. Each of the different strategies explored in Soda Politics warrants further scrutiny and provides interested scholars and investigative researchers with ample material for new studies.
Jennifer Lacy-Nichols is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne researching the response of the Australian soft drink industry to obesity. She is particularly interested in corporate power and corporatology—the study of the political behavior of large TNCs, including Big Food. Her research seeks to understand the political motivations driving the food industry’s response to obesity and bridges food studies, critical public health, and political science.