City Desk

Where Bloomberg’s Sugary Soda Ban Falls Apart

NYT food guru Mark Bittman makes a good point about Mayor Mike Bloomberg's plan to ban large sodas in some New York City venues. Soda isn't food:

What, exactly, is food? My dictionary calls it “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink, or that plants absorb, in order to maintain life and growth.” That doesn’t help so much unless you define nutritious. Nutritious food, it says here, “provides those substances necessary for growth, health, and good condition.”

Sugar-sweetened beverages don’t meet this description any more than do beer and tobacco and, for that matter, heroin, and they have more in common with these things than they do with carrots. They promote growth all right — in precisely the wrong way — and they do the opposite of promoting health and good condition. They are not food.

This is true. But any number of food-like products also fail to meet Bittman's definition. The most obvious example is candy. And the same could go for any number of popular processed (and delicious) snacks like cookies or Hot Cheetos. While advocates point to evidence that sugary soda is uniquely bad, the plan is catching heat because it seems so arbitrary (for example, it doesn't affect all large sodas, like the ever-popular Big Gulp or heavily caloric bottled iced coffees).

So what's going to happen in New York? My guess: People will get used to it. Plus, most of Bloomberg's other food social policies haven't caught on elsewhere—though some, like calorie labeling or a trans fats ban, I'd welcome here in D.C. But most likely, even in New York, the ban won't actually make much of a difference.

Obviously what should be happening here is a federal move to end sugar subsidies. If Bittman wants to argue against added sugar in food—which he does effectively—then it's silly to neglect the point that sugar is cheap because the government makes it cheap. Make it expensive and people will consume less.

Photo bu Uwe Hermann via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution Generic 2.0 License

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  • drez

    This is silly. Sugar is nutritious, as in it is a nutrient, necessary for health and growth. No, it is not the sole nutrient but, then again, only mother's milk likely has all of them. And then only if the mother has a balanced diet.

  • Rock Master Scott

    There is no sugar in most sodas. Just tons of high fructose corn syrup. We should be ending the corn subsidies and replacing the corn syrup with real, natural sugar.

  • Typical DC BS

    Why does Chicago (goose liver) and San Francisco (trans fats) and now NYC (large sodas?) all have nanny's running them, telling their citizens what foods they are allowed to have. What gives?

  • Typical DC BS

    @Rock Master Scott: Agree 100%. GIVE US OUR SUGAR BACK.

  • Joe

    If you read the article that you linked to, you'll find that sugar "subsidies" actually make sugar more expensive. That's because sugar doesn't receive government payments, like some other subsidized commodities.

    U.S. sugar producers benefit from a system of market controls and tariffs that work by ensuring that sugar prices remain high, and domestic producers face limited international competition. From a public health perspective, the sugar program may be a good thing, because it, almost like a tax, makes sugar cost more.

    This was actually one of the factors in the rise of corn-derived sweeteners, and one of the reasons corn syrup is used more widely in the US than it is elsewhere. Corn actually does receive government payments, and so government support makes it cheaper.

  • Shani Hilton

    @Joe you're right about my misread of the blog post, though in this case I consider sugar/HFCS to be essentially the same thing.

  • Joe

    Fair enough. But your proposed remedy was to change federal policy. And when it comes to federal policy, sugar and HFCS are treated very, very differently.

  • Lex

    I'm not sure you read that article you posted from the Cato Institute - it says that sugar prices are artificially *high* - and besides, neither beet nor cane sugar are used in the production of American sodas.

    But that factual misstep aside, Bloomberg doesn't have the power to change tariffs or subsidies at the national level. The point of stopping soda sales at a certain size actually makes sense if you know anything about the psychology of eating. People eat (or drink) what's put in front of them. They'll finish a 12 ounce drink just as readily as a 24 ounce drink, regardless of how thirsty they actually are. People who really want the 24 can go back and get another, but the people who didn't really want 24 ounces but wound up buying it anyway will benefit greatly.

    Ditto other sorts of portion size problems. People are much more willing to finish extra food than to throw it away, so why not push for smaller portions and those who want more can get more? It's less wasteful and people are still perfectly capable of getting what they want.