Creeping Progress in Pledge to Cut Calories in Sugary Soda


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Vanessa Brooks of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Brenda Sheffield of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Ideal Market/Met Foods, where low-sugar drinks from the Coca-Cola Company are prominently displayed.

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Dave Sanders for The New York Times

It hasn’t been a good year for the troika that dominates soft drink sales, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple. The public’s attention on the health effects of sugary sodas has continued to increase, slowing growth and increasing political pressure.

This year, soft drink companies and their lobbying group, the American Beverage Association, spent $38 million to defeat election-season proposals to impose taxes on sugary drinks in four cities: San Francisco, Oakland and Albany in California, and Boulder, Colo. The companies lost all of those fights. Now, seven cities around the country have a soda tax.

One way the companies have tried to get ahead of the tax efforts is by vowing to reduce the calories in their products. In September 2014, they committed to reducing calories 20 percent nationwide by 2025 and focus on 10 communities where rates of obesity, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes are among the highest.

The effort has been underway for about a year now, and as the beverage association prepared to release research about the efforts, it invited a handful of reporters to see what had been done to encourage consumption of healthier beverages in three stores in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, one of the 10 sites the companies promised to focus on.

Here are the findings and observations, which suggest that the companies have a long way to go to meet their goal.

A Slow Start

The average American consumed an estimated 199 calories a day from beverages in 2014, when beverage companies made their pledge, and that fell to 198.7 calories a day the next year, according to research by Keybridge Public Policy Economics, an independent firm paid by the beverage association to conduct the study.

That is a decline of less than 1 percent, far off the pace need to reach a 20 percent drop over a decade. To achieve their 2025 goal, the companies must reduce calories to 159.2 calories per person per day.

Americans actually increased the volume of beverages they consumed by 2.2 percent from 2014 to 2015, largely because they drank more water. Consumers drank less soda, but substituted bottled coffee and tea, sports drinks and energy drinks, according to Robert F. Wescott, president of Keybridge.

“The increase in water — it’s not replacing something else,” he said.

Subtle Changes to Products

The companies are offering several alternatives to traditional soda, and have retooled older products to reduce calories. This has often been done quietly, with subtle changes to the drinks.

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Bedford-Stuyvesant was one of the areas soft drink manufacturers targeted in an effort to sell more low-calorie beverages.

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Dave Sanders for The New York Times

“Consumers won’t buy something if you tell them you’ve changed it,” said Michael Morel, sales director for Brooklyn at the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New York. Pepsi, for instance, reformulated nine varieties of Brisk, an iced tea and juice line it owns together with Unilever. Using a combination of caloric and noncaloric sweeteners, PepsiCo lowered calories in the drinks by as much as 44 percent.

“There was a dramatic decrease in calories in Brisk — but not in sales,” Mr. Wescott said. “Calorie decreases like that need to accelerate to meet the 2025 target.”

More additions are coming. The Dr Pepper Snapple Group has nearly doubled sales of seltzers over the last several years as part of its effort to encourage greater consumption of low-calorie drinks. On Tuesday, the company announced it was paying $1.7 billion for Bai Brands, a maker of so-called enhanced waters with just five calories, thus expanding its portfolio of low-calories drinks.

Better Placement

The companies have also renegotiated their agreements with grocery chains and bodegas in Bedford-Stuyvesant to give better placement to lower-calorie drinks. For instance, Coke Zero and other no-calorie drinks from Coca-Cola are now standing cheek by jowl with traditional Coca-Cola, Powerade and other beverages on eye-level shelves at the Ideal Food Basket in Bed-Stuy. “We didn’t sell any of those products here before,” said Kamau Brown, Coca-Cola’s director of sales and operations for the New York City metro region.

Coca-Cola and the other beverage companies have also persuaded retailers to let them to add racks and cardboard display cases, which effectively create additional shelf space for the lower-calorie products. This ensures that stores don’t lose revenue from tried-and-true sweetened products until lower-calorie products demonstrate solid sales, Mr. Brown said.

For instance, 33.8-ounce bottles of Smart Water, which has no calories, were displayed on a wire rack at a price of four for $5. A cardboard display of different flavors of Aloe Gloe, a new low-calorie enhanced water line from Coke, offered two small cardboard “bottles” for $4.

But the calorie-heavy products are not far away. Separating the Smart Water and Aloe Gloe displays were two shopping carts filled with 3-liter bottles of ginger ale and Pepsi Wild Cherry, on sale for $2.99.

New Promotions

The companies are using a variety of promotions designed to encourage greater sales of low- and no-calorie drinks. At the deli, for instance, PepsiCo’s lower-calorie drinks are sold for 99 cents. Coca-Cola had a variety of “buy one, get one free” offers on displays that encouraged consumers to get an eight-pack of small 7.5-ounce cans of Coke Zero if they bought the same size pack of classic Coke.

All three big beverage companies have signs that read, “Balance what you eat, drink and do” and show images of some lower-calorie products. Pepsi’s, for instance, shows bottles of Gatorade and Aquafina, its water brand. But a small bottle of classic Pepsi is also featured front and center.

Moussad Elghandour, a Yemeni immigrant who owns the Utica Express Deli in Bed-Stuy, said that the promotions were driving sales — but that sugary drinks were also selling well. Changing demographics in the neighborhood, he said, noting specifically a higher number of white residents, were also responsible for the changing mix of drinks he’s selling.

“Some people care about themselves, their health. Some people don’t,” Mr. Elghandour said.

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