Op-Ed: Putting Competition Aside to Support Public Health

EDITOR’S NOTE: Coca-Cola UNITED President and CEO John Sherman, and Buffalo Rock President and CEO and American Beverage Association Board Chair Matthew Dent penned the following op-ed that appeared in Yellowhammer News on Feb. 7.

In Alabama we like our rivalries. One that goes back a hundred years or so is the neighborly competition between Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Dr Pepper. Alabamians have been enjoying beverages offered by our companies for decades. Our companies and employees who provide the soft drinks, waters, juices, sports drinks, teas and coffees created by these iconic brands take great pride in vying for consumer tastes.

But sometimes we have to put aside competition and work together for the good of everyone… and to support Alabama families, we are making it easier for them to balance the sugar they get from our beverages.

America’s beverage companies have made a public commitment to reduce the sugar people get from their beverages through product innovation and marketing of low- and zero-sugar options. The “Balance Calories Initiative” is spearheaded by the American Beverage Association, which is tracking the industry’s progress to reduce beverage calories by 20% per person nationally and in select communities with high obesity rates.

In 2016, we selected a pilot market in Lowndes and Montgomery counties in Alabama, where obesity is above the national average, to measure calorie reduction progress. Today, grocery stores and restaurants in these counties have more choices with less sugar, and smaller size packaging, than ever before – an array of innovations like zero-sugar sports drinks, reduced calorie juices and flavored sparkling waters.

And we are marketing these choices so people are aware of the low-sugar options available and can make them a greater part of their beverage mix. In addition to more innovation in our product offering, we are getting the word out with advertising and in-store displays, working with retailers in our communities who know their customers best so we can achieve positive results.

We are placing calorie awareness messages on coolers and fountains, and our company-owned vending machines allow you to check the calorie count of your selection before choosing. Prominent calorie count labels appear on the front of every bottle, can and pack we sell.

You can see these changes in the beverage aisle shelves and at fountains, and the results are promising.

In Lowndes and Montgomery counties, beverage calories per person have gone down every year for four straight years (2017-2020). Calories from beverages in these counties are down 8.8%. If the trend holds, we are on our way to significantly reducing beverage calories by 20%.

Importantly, volume sales of beverages have increased since 2015. This means Alabama families are buying more beverages, but they are getting fewer calories from them. The calorie balance is shifting, the exact result we are driving toward. Today, nearly 60% all beverages sold nationally are zero sugar.

As we all know, the COVID pandemic caused major disruptions to the way people bought food and beverages in 2020. But it did not disrupt the positive trend of calorie reductions in Alabama. Consumers in 2020 continued their shift toward more lower calorie beverages.

Buffalo Rock Company and Coca-Cola Bottling Company UNITED are always going to compete for sales. Our beverage brands are known the world over and have been part of Alabamians’ lives for well over a century. While we will continue to go at it in the marketplace, we will keep on working together to offer the choices that allow families to balance their lives. It is important to our consumers, our customers, and our communities. It is the right thing to do!