Let Consumers Make Their Own Choices About Sugary Drinks

The Center for Science in the Public Interest asks the government to go after soda and juice. What happened to the group's recent nod to empowered consumers?


Earlier this week the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a group that regularly pushes for increased food regulations and considers soda to be "a slow-acting but ruthlessly efficient bioweapon," announced it would be launching "a major action regarding the regulation of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages."

The major action turned out to be a petition CSPI submitted to the FDA requesting that the agency take action to restrict the amount of added caloric sweeteners like sugar and high fructose corn syrup in soda, juices, and other beverages. In its petition, CSPI also urges the agency to take action to limit the presence of such sweeteners in non-beverage foods.

CSPI has a long history—if not a successful one—of exercising its First Amendment Freedom of Petition.

The group has previously petitioned the FDA to curtail sales of Quorn (having also promoted its arrival in America), to restrict the use of trans fats in various foods (after first downplaying any ill effects associated with its consumption), and to mandate a cap on the amount of salt that can appear in processed foods. The latter effort has dragged on for more than three decades. None of these petitions succeeded.

This isn't the first petition CSPI has filed with the FDA pertaining to soda. Neither is this the first column I've written about CSPI and the group's dislike of soda.

In an October 2012 column here at Reason.com I applauded CSPI for a new anti-soda video because its message was to empower consumers to make up their own minds about whether or not to drink the very sweetened drinks the group is this week urging the FDA to crack down on.

"Through words and visuals," I wrote, "the video argues that individuals have both the power and responsibility… to make changes to their own diets and to those of their families."

I called the video a "fantastic addition to the marketplace of ideas—which is exactly where debates over food should be hashed out."

That doesn't mean I agree with the opinions presented in the video. Nor do I agree with some of the "facts" CSPI presents in the clip—some of which are plainly incorrect.

For example, CSPI claims in its video that the USDA's 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans report describes "soda and other sugary drinks a[s] the largest source of calories in our diet."

Yet, as I noted in my October column, Table 2-2 in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans lists "sweetened drinks… fourth on the list [of calorie sources] (behind grain-based desserts, bread, and chicken)."

In spite of these flaws, I noted the group's ode to personal responsibility was a refreshing change for CSPI, which often sues food companies and urges government otherwise to restrict food freedom. But, I cautioned, if CSPI were ever to revert to an anti-choice agenda, Keep Food Legal (the nonprofit I lead) and I would be right there to call the group out.

"But if and when the group ever reverted to its previous position—that people are powerless and… lawsuits and bans should follow," I wrote, "I'd feel empowered to refer again and again to the group's own contradictory words on the issue."

I have no specific quarrel with CSPI. Despite disagreeing with the group on a host of issues (including the FDA's Food Safety Modernization Act rules, which CSPI defended directly in response to a recent column of mine), I find its dietary advice is sometimes useful. In any event, the group deserves space within the marketplace of ideas whether or not I agree with its ideas.

But it's equally true that consumers have a right to make their own food choices, and that food producers deserve space within the commercial marketplace to meet that demand. And when a group seeks to use the power of government to restrict these basic freedoms after acknowledging the fact we have the power to change our own diets if we so wish, I have no choice but to point out its flawed logic and inconsistencies at every turn.