I want to start out by saying that I adore the First Lady. Really I do. By making childhood obesity prevention her signature issue, she has singlehandedly raised the level of national awareness to previously undreamed heights.
However, it appears that no one at the White House, Let’s Move! or the First Lady’s Partnership for a Healthier America sees the irony in her new, watered down Drink Up water campaign.
For starters, the list of supporters on the Drink Up website reads like a Who’s Who of the sugary drink industry including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and the American Beverage Association. By clicking on the links provided for their bottled water products, consumers are just a click away from Big Soda’s high-calorie sugary offerings — a development that surely occurred to these keenly observant beverage behemoths.
While promoting the consumption of water is certainly a worthwhile goal, the far more useful message is for children to drink water instead of drinking sugary beverages. Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest wisely commented:
“There’s not exactly a hydration crisis in this country that needs solving. Rather, the problem is that Americans are getting too many nutritionally worthless calories from sugar water. Soda and other sugar drinks are one of the biggest promoters of obesity and diabetes, and advocating drinking more actual water and less sugar water is one of the most important messages that Let’s Move! could deliver.”
And why is the Drink Up campaign heavily promoting bottled water when tap water is clearly the free, environmentally sound way to go? With tap water available to just about every home in the United States, particularly low-income homes where bottled water is a luxury, there seems to be no good reason the bottled water brigade was given such a prominent role in this campaign. Must industry always profit off of the First Lady’s obesity prevention initiatives?
When Big Soda is enthusiastically supportive of a public health campaign, you have to step back and ask why. Sure, their bottled water brands will get free marketing. And yes, Big Soda loves to be a part of anything that implies they are part of the solution to the nation’s obesity crisis. But I wonder if Coca-Cola and Pepsi see their participation in Drink Up as a backdoor way to promote even sugary and artificially sweetened drink brands.
Activist Casey Hinds of kyhealthykids was kind enough to point out this exchange between the American Beverage Association’s Dr. Maureen Storey and NPR host Michele Norris during an interview on May 4, 2010. When Norris asked Storey about the link between soda and obesity, she said soda is not to blame:
Dr. Maureen Storey (Senior Vice President, Science Policy, American Beverage Association): Soda is comprised mostly of water. A full-calorie soft drink has 90 percent water, and a diet soft drink is 99 percent water. Water is the most important nutrient that we have…
Norris: Let’s move down, though. If you’re looking at that label on the back of a soda, what else is in there that is of nutritional value?
Dr. Storey: Of nutritional value, there is either high-fructose corn syrup or sucrose, and that does provide energy or carbohydrates. And if we are active and need a refreshing beverage after a nice, long walk or a run, you can have a beverage and quench your thirst and stay hydrated.
Norris: Is it advisable after a nice, long run, or after going out and exercising — which you’ve been advocating — to reach for a beverage that has 22 grams of sugar or 34 grams of sugar? Is that nutritionally sound?
Dr. Storey: Well, I don’t think it’s nutritionally unsound. There are some studies that show that particularly with children, children who have been exercising may not drink enough water to get back to the hydration point that they need to be at. So with a little bit of flavoring and a little bit of sweetness, they will drink enough, then, to get back to where they need to be.
Dr. Storey’s talking points about hydration, getting enough water, and how water is the most important nutrient we have, sound similar to the talking points I’ve heard so far from Michelle Obama’s Drink Up campaign. Let’s hope that the soda industry doesn’t begin to promote the water content of sugary and artificially sweetened beverages in their advertising. They have already jumped on the hydration bandwagon in marketing campaigns including ones for Vitaminwater, Gatorade, Powerade, and even sugary sodas like Coke.
I really want to support the First Lady’s Drink Up campaign. With a little tweaking, the campaign could have a huge impact and help reverse the obesity epidemic among America’s kids. But if Mrs. Obama is unwilling to highlight that water should replace sugary drinks (the average American now drinks 45 gallons of sugary drinks annually) and hesitant to promote tap water as heavily as bottled, I’m going to be deeply disappointed.
In an interview, Let’s Move Executive Director Sam Kass told reporters that the Drink Up campaign is focusing more on “being positive and not getting [into] details about what a glass of water can do.” Fair enough. But kids are not mind readers. They still need to be told that the only way water can improve their health is if it replaces sugary drinks in their diet. Otherwise, the only real change we’ll see from the First Lady’s campaign are longer lines at school restrooms.