Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Policy Point Wednesday: A Word About Soda Sizes and Freedom of Choice

News of Mayor Bloomberg's Large Soda Ban is all over food advocacy sites.  After failing to remove sodas from SNAP-eligible purchases, New York City's health department decided to address inflated portion size in single-serving takeout sodas.

Thoughts on this policy are mixed.  In The Lunch Tray, author Bettina Elias Siegel, who agrees soda sizes are too large, writes that "forbidding people outright to buy the size of soda they desire strikes me as quite paternalistic and intrusive" and may cause soda drinkers to refill sodas out of resentment.  The Daily Show  describes the measure as combining "the draconian government overreach people love with the probable lack of results they expect."

The city of Cambridge, on the other hand, is considering a similar ban. “It seems like the way we have to go is look at the environment, look at the temptations that are out there for people,” Mayor Davis told WBZ NewsRadio 1030. “See if that can be easier on all of us by not having bottomless pits of soda.”

Scientists have studied the effect of visual portion size on eating habits.  Brian Wansink of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and author of Mindless Eating studies eating habits and portion size.  In Bottomless Bowls: Why Visual Cues of Portion Size May Influence Intake, his researchers show how "Visual cues can lead a person to underestimate how much they have consumed or to overestimate how much they have consumed. This can lead one to consume either more than they intended or less than they intended."  They recorded reactions to a "bottomless" bowl of soup that slowly refilled itself unbeknownst to the research participants, and measured the amount of soup eaten vs the amount eaten in a normal bowl.  Participants eating the refilling bowls estimated they ate about the same amount of calories than the people eating the normal bowl of soup - but they actually ate almost double the calories.

Test the visual cue yourself, soda drinkers: see if you are satisfied with one "mini" size can of soda.  These sodas are 7.5 ounces - a half-ounce (one tablespoon) less than an 8oz standard serving.  The "mini" plastic bottled sodas are 12 ounces, the same size as a standard can - don't they look tiny?  They offer a half-cup more, or a total of 1 1/2 times the serving size (serving size does seem to vary in the nutrition facts, btw.)  16 ounces, the "large" size allowable under the NY ban, is a double serving.  Soda companies are, of course, in favor of larger sizes because we exponentially increase our purchases as we consume multiple servings in one setting.  We would never consider drinking 32 ounces of water, but a soda that size offers an excuse to consume the equivalent of over 23 sugar cubes* (each cube is about a teaspoon of sugar - so, about half a cup.)  Manipulating visual cues so we purchase more than we ordinarily would is a common tactic of big food companies, and it is important to note that the purveyors of single-serve sodas are driving the sizes.

In my opinion, the only freedom that is being restricted in New York is the freedom of food companies to mislead us, and I think the Mayor might have had more success if he had presented this campaign in that light.  Individuals are still free to refill their sodas, buy 2-liter bottles, or buy more than one, but when they do so, they make a conscious choice to purchase more than two servings, and soft drink marketers are less able to pretend otherwise.  We seem to hold a double standard in how we react to the manipulation of marketers and how we react to the intervention of government.  Mayor Bloomberg is NOT restricting consumers, but holding food marketers accountable; his only gaffe was to discuss individual consumer behavior at all.  In short, I think this legislation is a valid way to level the playing field for consumers. I wish only that his ban extended to all single-serve fountain sodas.

*I have to add a link to this post by Marion Nestle, to illustrate how little food companies care about the effects of marketing their products to vulnerable populations.

1 comment:

Madison said...

Oh brother.

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