NY City’s (Failed) Ban on XXL Sodas and the History of Supersizing

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Recently we read an article in class on the mayor of New York City’s attempt to ban the sale of supersized soft drinks. In January, the city’s health board “passed a ban on serving sodas and other sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces (0.5 l) in restaurants and cinemas” (Moya Irvine in Read On , January 2013, p 1).

We discussed the pro and con arguments and related issues like causes of obesity, our own eating and drinking habits, general lifestyle issues etc. According to Moya Irvine, the main parties against the ban were those who feared their business interests would be damaged, like small delis, big restaurant chains and the fast food and drinks industries. Their major argument was that a ban would deprive citizens of their right to make their own choices, as a tweet from McDonald’s to the mayor, Michael Bloomberg (the main initiator of the ban as well as other health related campaigns), stated: “We trust our customers to make the choices that are best for them.”

Sounds reasonable, sounds right. Why should the government be responsible and regulate what people put into their bodies? But why is it then that so many people seem to be making the wrong choices?

A friend of mine recently went on a motor bike tour through the mid-west. He sent beautiful pictures of the landscape (and their rented Harleys), but also reported on their difficulty to find decent food. They only passed fast food joints; fruits and vegetables were unavailable. In the USA, these areas are commonly known as food deserts.  So much for choice. (The link leads to a great web site where you can listen to various reports on all sorts of topics related to food, farming and environmental issues.)

However, New York City is not the mid-west and does offer a vast range of different food stuffs. Maybe the healthy things are more expensive or the ‘bad food’ much cheaper and easier available? The group ‘New Yorkers for Beverage Choice’ argue that only education, diet and exercise can lead to a healthy lifestyle. What does this mean for those without access to these things, whatever the reasons? Or: are the uneducated doomed to an unhealthy life? Or: everybody who is obese is uneducated? – a landmine of dangerous assumptions.

I have no idea why people cannot stop the process of getting fatter and fatter and fatter. Or had.

In the mean time I have read quite a few books and watched online presentations about this issue, the links of some I provide at the end of this post.

One of these books was Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006). After I started reading this, I added the following text to our discussion on Michael Bloomberg’s ban (meanwhile a court has reversed the ban, but he will continue to fight for it. See www.reuters.com/…/us-sodaban-lawsuit-idUSBRE9...‎)

The History of Supersizing
It’s our own choice – or not?

David Wallerstein, who served on the board of directors at Mcdonald’s until 1993, worked for a chain of movie theaters in Texas in the 50ies and 60ies. Movie theaters’ profitability depended on sales of soda and popcorn, thus Wallerstein came up with many ideas to boost sales like two-for-one deals, matinee specials etc. However, customers would not buy more than one soda and one bag of popcorn.

“Wallerstein discovered that people would spring for more popcorn and soda – a lot more – as long as it came in a single gigantic serving “ (from: Michael Pollan, 2006,  The Omnivore’s Dilemma) because, as Wallerstein concluded, going for seconds made them feel piggish.

When working at McDonald’s, Wallerstein had to convince Ray Kroc (who bought McDonald’s from the McDonald brothers in 1961) that selling bigger portions for a higher price was the way to increase profits. People would not buy a second bag, but they would buy one bigger one.

Deep cultural taboos against gluttony – one of the seven deadly sins (emphasis mine), after all – had been holding us back. Wallersteins’s dubious achievement was to devise a dietary equivalent of a papal dispensation: Supersize it!  (…) One might think that people would stop eating and drinking these gargantuan portions as soon as they felt full, but it turns out hunger doesn’t work that way. Researchers have found that people (and animals) presented with large portions will eat up to 30 percent more than they would otherwise. Human appetite, it turns out, is surprisingly elastic, which makes excellent evolutionary sense (…) (Michael Pollan, Kindle edition, 2009).

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, as Michael Pollan explains, ate as much as possible whenever they had the opportunity, because food was not available every day. And he continues:

Like most other warm-blooded creatures, humans have inherited a preference for energy-dense foods, a preference reflected in the sweet tooth shared by most mammals. Natural selection predisposed us to the taste of sugar and fat (…) because sugars and fats offer the most energy (…) per bite. Yet in nature – in whole foods – we seldom encounter these nutrients in the concentrations we now find them in in processed foods: You won’t find a fruit with anywhere near the amount of fructose in a soda, or a piece of animal flesh with quite as much fat as a chicken nugget.

As much as what we eat would seem to be a matter of our own choices and thus our own responsibility,  it seems that the cheap processed food made available by the food industry is at least partly if not mainly responsible for the obesity epidemic in the US (and more and more other countries including the UK and Germany).


A follow-up topic to this was The Seven Deadly Sins (great vocabulary practice).

After we failed to list all seven sins – even with the help of the movie with Brad Pitt that most knew – I provided a text with the help of wikipedia, whose entry on this I wildly shortened. See follow-up post (which you find under June 25, 2013; I just moved this post – Ban on XXL drinks – to the front, as I am discussing the topic in a new group.).

Also from Wikipedia:
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals is a nonfiction book by Michael Pollan published in 2006. In the book, Pollan asks the seemingly straightforward question of what we should have for dinner. As omnivores, the most unselective eaters, we humans are faced with a wide variety of food choices, resulting in a dilemma. Pollan suggests that, prior to modern food preservation and transportation technologies, this particular dilemma was largely resolved, primarily through cultural influences. These technologies have recreated the dilemma, by making available foods that were previously seasonal or regional. The relationship between food and society, once moderated by culture, now finds itself confused. To learn more about those choices, Pollan follows each of the food chains that sustain us; industrial food, organic food, and food we forage ourselves; from the source to a final meal, and in the process writes a critique of the American way of eating.

Michael Pollan on youtube

OmnivoresDilemma full.jpg

Further recommendations and links:

R. Lustig, Fat Chance: the bitter truth about sugar, HarperCollins 2012

Robert Lustig about the dangers of high fructose corn syrup and why he thinks it is mainly responsible for the obesity epidemic in the US


90 min lecture by Robert Lustig (Dr. med):


Article on the same topic:


Loren Cobain’s research on the problem of grains as our staple food:



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