Why Are The Girl Scouts Getting Into the Sugar Bomb Beverage Business?

The beverage industry's got a growing public relations problem. Soda sales are dropping as more folks realize just how bad for us this stuff is. That's why Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the Dr Pepper Snapple Group just announced that they're going to voluntarily reduce the calories in their sugary drinks by offering smaller portions and more low-and no-calorie options. The obesity epidemic is not only widening our children's waistlines, it's shortening their childhood, too. It turns out that being overweight is one of the greatest risk factors driving the dramatic rise of early onset puberty, forcing pre-teen girls to cope with physical changes they're not emotionally equipped to handle.

Those prematurely raging hormones also impair our children's impulse control, making them easy prey for marketers. Food and beverage companies have made a fortune by encouraging kids to practically eat and drink themselves to death, and sugary beverages are a major culprit. According to a recent Harvard study, "sugar-sweetened beverages are linked to more than 180,000 obesity-related deaths worldwide each year."

Smaller bottles of Coke may be a nice nod to the pre-Big Gulp era (not to mention Michael Bloomberg's widely mocked campaign to limit soda sizes). But as Katie Couric and I documented in Fed Up, the real problem is sugar, not calories, and the way companies use it to hook kids on their unhealthy products. Oh, and by the way, diet soda isn't good for you, either!

As Dr. Robert Lustig, pediatric endocrinologist and Board President at the Institute for Responsible Nutrition, said in response to the "big soda announcement," "A 20 calorie per can reduction over 6 years is too little too late...the public should look at this behavior for what it is; an effort to avoid corporate responsibility while making the public think they are responsible."

Honestly, we're used to these cynical PR ploys from corporations. The beverage story that really shocked me this week was Nestlé's launch of two hyper-sweetened Nesquik® chocolate milk drinks based on much-loved Girl Scout cookie flavors. Each 16-ounce bottle of Nesquik® Girl Scouts® Thin Mints® or Nesquik® Girl Scouts® Caramel Coconut contains a whopping 48 grams of sugar. That's twelve teaspoons of liquid sugar, about three to four times the safe amount for a child's entire day (the label claims a bottle contains two servings, but what kid going to drink half and save the rest for later?)

How could the Girl Scouts license their venerable logo to help Nestlé market a super sugary drink to impressionable young children, including their own devoted members? Childhood ought to be a time of innocence, not exploitation. If, like me and my Fed Up co-executive producer Katie Couric, you're one of the more than 59 million women in America who belonged to the Girl Scouts, you probably have fond memories of sitting around campfires and earning merit badges.

For generations, Americans have looked up to this 102 year-old institution as a guiding light for girls from every corner of the country. Its founder, Juliette Low, believed passionately in the importance of good nutrition and healthy habits, declaring that "health is probably a woman's greatest capital, and a Girl Scout ... doesn't waste it in poor diet ... so that she goes bankrupt before she is thirty."

The controversy over the Girl Scouts using cookie sales to raise funds may be nothing new, but this deal steps way over the line in its willingness to compromise our children's health for the sake of corporate profits.

How many meetings did it take to create the look, taste, and packaging of this new product? The Girl Scouts' leadership is chock full of principals, including an executive director, national and regional boards, an executive team, a board of directors, and over one hundred local councils across the country. Did any one from that large staff, many of whom must be parents themselves, stop to think about how unhealthy this product is for kids, or the health of this country?

Girl Scout president Anna M. Chavez, the first Latina woman to lead this organization of more than 3.2 million girls and adults, surely has heard about the dramatic rise in kids getting adult-type 2 diabetes, a phenomenon virtually unheard of a decade ago--perhaps in conversation with the country's leading childhood obesity advocate AND former Girl Scout Michele Obama before she addressed the organization in honor of its one hundredth anniversary? Given the sad fact that Hispanic kids are at even greater risk of diabetes (they are marketed more to than their white counterparts), Chavez's decision to use the Girl Scout brand to help promote the very thing that's making them sick is truly baffling.

Nestlé trumpets these sugar bomb beverages as a "double awesome combo," inviting kids to tweet photos of their "double awesome moments" drinking them in order to enter its "Double Awesome Twitter Contest" and potentially win all kinds of great prizes.

It's a Double Awful debacle. Nestlé's relationship with the Girl Scouts reflects an all-too-familiar corporate strategy of donating to worthy causes and launching "innocent" campaigns to encourage kids to get more exercise. The company gets to slap a veneer of social responsibility onto its totally irresponsible products, and the organization becomes hooked on the money that rolls in.

But the buck stops with the leadership and Chavez. The Girl Scouts' own website states "Our health and fitness programs encourage girls to adopt healthy fitness and eating habits early in life and to continue them into adulthood." How does the marketing of super-sugary chocolate milk drinks to young enthusiastic preteen and teen girl scouts square with that declared mission? What's next, a merit badge for false advertising?

Fed Up is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray, iTunes, and Amazon.