The American Beverage Association is launching a new pilot effort called Calories Count to update PepsiCo and Coca-Cola vending machines to include lower-calorie drink options, as well as display the calorie counts for the available drinks. The new vending machines will appear in municipal buildings in Chicago and San Antonio early next year — as part of a broader wellness challenge between the two cities that will attempt to lower health care costs by encouraging municipal employees to set goals to improve their health — with the potential to expand the program to other cities in the future.
The beverage industry has become a central figure in the public health battle to combat obesity, as research has linked the consumption of sugary drinks to obesity and lawmakers like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) have moved to ban large sizes of soda. But as the New York Times reports, soda critics are cautiously optimistic that the Calories Count initiative could help encourage Americans to choose lower calorie options:
“People tend to overconsume products with sugar and for these companies to be doing something that may decrease consumption of their sugared beverages surprises me,” said Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. “But it does seem to me to be a positive move.”
Sales of carbonated sodas have been declining for the last decade, as American consumers have embraced new choices of beverages and, more recently, become more aware of how much sugar they contain. Coke and Pepsi have greatly expanded their portfolios, adding bottled waters, juices and sports drinks that have helped reduce their reliance on their core brands, though they still defend them.
In a note Monday morning, John Sicher, the publisher of Beverage Digest, an influential trade publication, said he thought the new effort might be a way to get consumers to drink more of their low-calorie and no-calorie drinks.
The health care reform law will eventually require all chain restaurants — defined as those with more than 20 locations — to disclose calorie counts on their menus. Although that regulation has not yet gone into effect, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are not the only companies to get a jump start on publicly posting calories for their products. Last month, fast food giant McDonald’s added calorie labels to its menus. One Harvard study estimated that the average American child consumes about 270 calories from sugary drinks each day.