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Let Them Eat Junk

Snack and Soda Companies Seek Political Cover in the Developing World

A man carries a cooler as he passes giant bottles of Coca Cola on a beach in Cancun, Mexico on October 13, 2015. Edgard Garrido / REUTERS

In the United States and Europe, junk food sales have precipitously declined since the late 1990s. Analysts have put the change up to greater health consciousness, increasing labor costs, decreasing purchasing power among the poor, new tastes among millennials, and the rise of “fast casual” dining options, among other market shifts. For their part, the soda and snack food companies, such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé, have turned to emerging markets to secure profits. And they are doing everything they can to keep their new markets pliable.

The soda and snack food industries are not just investing in franchises and vending machines in countries such as Mexico, Brazil, and India. They are also building political and social alliances that can help them deflect political opposition, duck public scrutiny, and avoid stiff regulations on the sale of their products.

Companies such as Coca-Cola and Nestlé have worked closely with health-care officials in Mexico to create innovative public health programs, for example, with a focus on avoiding obesity and type 2 diabetes. They have also contributed to anti-poverty and economic development initiatives that help particular politicians deepen their bases of political support. In some cases, the companies have reached out directly to communities. Nestlé won favor among the poor in Brazil by offering a generous employment program. Coca-Cola has underwritten community sports and health-care initiatives in Mexico, making itself a part of the local culture.

The alliances that the snack food and soda industries cultivate today will have grave policy consequences in the future. Politicians who have benefited from the companies’ largesse will be hard pressed to stiffen regulations limiting the marketing and sale of junk food products. And such limits are critical at a time when obesity and type 2 diabetes are on the rise among children and the poor in countries such as Mexico and Brazil.

STRIKING OUT FOR NEW TERRITORY

Just as the junk food industry has taken a nose dive in the industrialized West, soda and snack food sales have burgeoned in emerging markets. Snack food

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