Goats and Soda: How Good Are They Trying to Do a New Bookraises Doubts? The Case of Coca-Cola
In the 2010s, Coke made a big push into rural parts of lower income countries to sell more soda. The 1-Cup serving size of the bottles was smaller, more durable and could be sold for less on the shelves.
They built solar- powered coolers that made it possible to keep coke in places that didn’t have an electrical grid.
Splash bars are small businesses run by women that sell shots of Coke and other Coca-Cola products for as low as 7 U.S. cents a serving to make the beverage affordable to everyone.
The company presented this strategy as a win-win – they benefited because their product was becoming more available in remote areas and female entrepreneurs had a new way to earn a living.
In these countries, many people see the ability to buy so-called junk food – not just soda but packaged chips and candies and fast food from chains – as a sign they’re made it. And the junk food manufacturers try to put a positive face on their campaigns to expand their audience. Even with the rising consumption of junk food, they forge partnerships with local governments to fight hunger and poverty.
Gmez spoke with NPR about junk food, soda taxes and why healthy eating campaigns are not going against ads for fried chicken and candy. The conversation has been edited.
I define junk food as highly ultra-processed fast foods, from KFC to burgers, candies, confectionery, ice cream. Coca-Cola is one of the high-sugar, soda drinks.
The growth of obesity and diabetes: a two-way street for junk food politics, politics and sociology in Brazil (with a few exceptions)
Fear and opportunity have led us to see a huge and rapid spread of these foods. “Fear” that industries have of losing market [share] in Western nations, and “opportunity” because there’s a [growing] middle class in these emerging economies that are eager to purchase them.
Junk food politics is a two-way street. Junk food industries influence politics and society so that they can avoid regulations that may negatively affect their profitability, such as taxes on junk foods.
We often think industry is to blame. But governments are also to blame [because political leaders partner with industry on their own political agendas – which gives industry clout to undermine policies that would cut their profits].
In Brazil, for example, you have the rise of industry groups, [like the Brazilian Food Industry Association] that were very, very influential in lobbying the congress and infiltrating national agencies that are working on regulations [like advertising restrictions for junk food]. They’re engaging in partnerships [with governments and communities where] they can be perceived as a solution to the problems [of obesity and diabetes] by, for instance, helping to improve the [sharing] of nutritional information. They’re building legitimacy and avoiding costly regulations.
Of course, President Lula’s intentions were admirable in alleviating hunger. But perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to partner with companies that produce a lot of these ultra-processed foods, because it indirectly legitimizes the company. It increases the popularity of their products and the consequences to health.
While some countries have done a good job of increasing nutrition awareness, other countries are still growing fat and developing diabetes. Governments are not really getting to the root of the problem when they do a little on the fringes. They’re not taking on these industries through regulations to sales and advertising.
The rural poor are getting more obese. This is something we don’t normally assume. In India in the 1990s and early 2000s, obese people were seen as a disease of luxury. It was assumed that only people with status and money could have this problem. For many years the government didn’t do anything because they perceived [growing rates of diabetes and obesity] as affecting a small minority of the population.
[Junk food distribution] started in cities, and over time they [expand] out to other areas of the country. There was a time when the blue boats that went through the Amazon were distributed with candy and cookies. [The “junk food barges,” as critics called them, have stopped]. In rural India, there are shops where people pay for one small shot of Coca-Cola while getting their phones charged.
Junk food is bought voluntarily in every country. It can be eaten without being asked. Why aren’t programs that teach healthy eating and exercise enough to convince people to avoid it?
We want people to know what they’re eating and we want them to know what they’re not eating. And there’s growing commitment and success on better food labels. Chile, for example, has introduced more effective food labels – on products high in salt, sugar and fat, they have adopted these black octagon images that are on the food products – that have rippled out through the Americas.
But people are always flooded with marketing and access [to processed foods]. Even when you have this knowledge, there are incentives for you to eat these products that are readily available and less healthy.
Good health and nutrition are linked to bigger systemic problems and healthy eating and exercise campaigns only focus on the individual.
You say governments in low-resource countries have made some progress on taxing junk foods and improving the labeling. What other things do you think need to happen?
None of these governments have committed to restricting advertising. Voluntary pledges from companies to refrain from marketing unhealthy foods to children are whatCountries have, instead. There aren’t a lot of laws about what can be sold in schools. And even when they have laws or rules that prohibit the sale of junk foods in schools, they are not effectively being enforced.
There’s an extremely high cost to society, mainly from the health consequences. Quality of life can be impacted if you develop type 2 diabetes because of high sugar intake. Argentina, for example, has seen a crisis in the affordability of insulin. The poor don’t always get the medicines they need to regulate theirblood pressure and sugar because we don’t pay enough attention to ensuring they don’t go broke.
A government that is committed to ensuring the health of all of society is the solution. One that provides activists and communities with a voice that is equal to, or exceeds, the voice of industries within government. One that has no fear of taking on the powerful industries and creating regulations that protect vulnerable populations – especially children and the poor – over the interests of major corporations.
And the solution, too, is our work in communities as researchers and as community members, to raise the awareness about the importance of good nutrition and exercise, and to increase awareness about the need for access to healthier foods.
In the late 2000s, Carlos Monteiro noticed something strange about the food that Brazilian people were eating. The nutritionist had looked at a lot of data from surveys that asked grocery shoppers to note down every item they bought. In more recent surveys, Monteiro noticed, Brazilians were buying way less oil, sugar, and salt than they had in the past. Despite this, people were piling on the pounds. Between 1975 and 2009 the proportion of Brazilian adults who were overweight or obese more than doubled.
Monteiro created a new food classification system—called NOVA—that breaks things down into four categories. Least worrisome are minimally processed foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed meats. Then come processed culinary ingredients (oils, butter, and sugar), and after that processed foods (tinned vegetables, smoked meats, freshly baked bread, and simple cheeses)—substances to be used carefully as part of a healthy diet. Ultra-processed foods are also included.
The concept of ultra-processed food has caught on in a big way since it was first introduced in 2009: Brazil, France, Israel, Ecuador, and Peru have all made NOVA part of their dietary guidelines. One thing people can agree on is the importance of avoiding ultra-processed foods. The label was used to criticize plant-based meat companies, who in turn embraced the label. Impossible calls its plant-based burger “unapologetically processed.” Others have pointed out that there’s no way we can feed billions of people without relying on processed food.