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The History of Supersizing: How We've Become a Nation Hooked on Bigger Is Better

NYC's recent ruling limiting the size of sugary drinks has spurred a lot of controversy. Is it stupid? Not if you know the history of supersizing.

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In some cases, marketers have figured out how to get us to order what we might not otherwise allow ourselves to eat. Take the Starbucks frappuccino. A morning coffee is normal. A morning milkshake is not. Drinking several cups of coffee a day is normal, but you might not allow yourself several milkshakes in a day. By presenting its frappuccinos as fancy coffee drinks, not desserts, Starbucks has its customers lining up to order "coffees" filled with sugar and topped with whipped cream and chocolate or caramel syrup starting early in the morning. A venti chocolate cookie crumble frappuccino has exactly 10 calories less than a Big Mac. You want fries with that?

To help encourage diners to eat more than ever, food manufacturers have discovered how to make all that food go down quick and easy. Former FDA administrator David Kessler calls it "adult baby food" in his book The End of Overeating. In one case, he cites meat that has marinade injected into it with hundreds of needles that tear up the connective tissue, quoting an industry executive who called the meat "pre-chewed." Another industry source described the food at Chili's by saying "All of this has been processed such that you can wolf it down fast... chopped up and made ultrapalatable." Kessler then weighs in, saying, "By eliminating the need to chew, modern food processing techniques allow us to eat faster."

Nowhere is this truer than in the case of beverages. When you eat a solid food, your body recognizes you've eaten and adjusts by eating less later. Not so when you drink your calories! When a corporation offers you a little more syrup and water in a larger cup for a little bit more money, they pocket the extra profit and you feel you are getting a great value -- but your body doesn't realize that it is supposed to eat fewer calories later because it just drank a Big Gulp. This is particularly troubling since added sugars in beverages make up 41 percent of added sugars in the diets of American kids and teens, who now eat more calories from added sugars than they should have for both added sugars and fats combined.

A third innovation from the 1970s that enters this equation is the invention of high-fructose corn syrup and the agricultural policies to make it cheap -- and cheaper than sugar. In the U.S., sugar has long enjoyed import quotas that keep the price artificially high. But agricultural subsidies make corn -- and high-fructose corn syrup -- cheap. By the early 1980s, the major soda companies had switched entirely from sugar to high-fructose corn syrup. Now that soda's main ingredient was cheaper than ever, it cost nearly nothing for restaurants and convenience stores to sell larger and larger sodas. Almost every extra penny paid for a larger-sized soda was pure profit.

Americans like to think of themselves as individuals who are capable of making their own choices. We don't need the government to tell us to drink less soda, right? But this is more a matter of the government telling corporations not to prey on human psychology and physiology to trick their customers into buying and drinking more soda than they want -- and more soda than is healthy for them. Particularly not when the result is a lifetime of illness and increased medical expenses, about half of which is shifted onto taxpayers who pay for Medicare, Medicaid and the VA.

On the other hand, nobody is banning consumers from drinking as much soda as they want. Just like in the old days before David Wallerstein's discovery of the "supersize," customers can still buy 32 ounces of soda if they want 32 ounces of soda. But in New York, that will involve ordering two sodas in two separate cups. Does that make you feel like a pig? Well, you're drinking 388 calories if the soda in your two cups is Coca-Cola. That's nearly 25 teaspoons of sugar: two and a half times what you should consume in a day. You can still have that much soda if you want it -- but maybe it's a good thing if ordering it makes you feel like a pig.

 
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