Health Hazard or Landmark
NYC is a city that is constantly changing, and that can be both exciting and sad. There are, however, some landmarks in the City that will never go away like The Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the arch at Washington Square Park. Right now, there is a debate going on as to whether the Pepsi Cola sign in Queens should be assigned a landmark status, which basically means that the sign is protected by the City’s Landmark Preservation Commission (NYC.gov). Having grown up here, the Pepsi Cola sign represents nothing to me other than my childhood. It feels like a comforting staple in a scene of constant chaos and change. But then I came across Marion Nestle’s Op-Ed about it yesterday and it made me re-think my opinion.
Firstly, the NYTimes asked Professor Nestle to write this Op-Ed about her POV on the controversy because she is a well respected food academic, writer, NYU professor of Nutrition and Food Studies, and has recently written a book on the subject, titled Soda Politics. But when Nestle sent her article back to The Times, they declined to print it on the basis that, “People love the Pepsi sign so much they do not want to hear arguments against it.” Um, OK – Keep in mind that the NYTimes asked her for her opinion, and that this is the Op-Ed page talking – as in the page that is supposed to contain people’s opinions! That weirdness aside, Nestle raises excellent points that totally reframed this Pepsi Cola sign/landmark issue for me.
There is no question that carbonated soda beverages are a severe public health risk. The links between sugar consumption and weight gain, obesity, and diseases like Type 2 diabetes are clear. With this in mind, Nestle draws a parallel to landmarking an old cigarette sign – what would people think? I’m sure they would be outraged. Nestle mentions that there is close to 1 teaspoon of sugar per ounce of carbonated soda. But what does that actually mean? I went down to my kitchen to investigate with a kitchen scale. It means this:
I couldn’t believe it! I mean, I knew there was a lot of sugar in soda, but I didn’t realize that an ounce is basically 3-4 sips of soda (check out the water line in the 1/3 cup in the photograph). Just think for a second about how many sips of soda are in a can or liter and a half bottle of Pepsi Cola? Yikes.
Nestle goes on to point out the incredible budgets that Pepsi spend every year to promote their product. Big Soda (like Pepsi Co and Coca Cola) have also been found to make substantial financial donations to not-for-profit groups and even health programs at major universities, like Yale. While the companies claim that the donations are to support research how to make their products healthier, it is also true that “medical” papers get published that pin weight gain on lack of exercise, not on sugar intake.
After reading Nestle’s article, I decided that not to support the old Pepsi Co sign being landmarked, and I hope it is torn down. It would be a win for the public and make a huge statement to Big Food and Big Beverage companies. While there is some part of me that is sad to see it go, it’s important to remember that a corporate sign is not culture, it’s a corporatization of culture. And the fact that this sign represents a product that has generated so many public health issues means it does not deserve protection by the City or its citizenry. I do have a suggestion though: In it’s place, rather than another building or some new corporate sign, how about a nice park that is full of trails and work out equipment so that we can run off all the sugar we have unwittingly been ingesting?