Mountain Dew in the Mountains

Mia Blyseth, Staff Writer

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What if you were told that Mountain Dew is the root of all of America’s problems? One serving of Mountain Dew contains 77 grams of sugar, more than three times the Food Drug Administration’s recommended daily intake of 25 grams. Annually Americans consume 44.7 gallons of carbonated beverages per capita, and recent studies show that this number is rising from the 2010 statistic. Soda is the most consumed beverage in the United States, and Big Soda does not plan on that changing anytime soon. In May of 2017, Pepsi made it onto the Forbes Most Valuable Brands list as number 30 with a net worth of $18.2 billion and spends $2.5 billion a year solely on advertising. Coca-Cola ranks even higher at number five; worth $56.4 billion and spending $4 billion on advertising per year. Together these two brands dominate Big Soda and the food industry as a whole in both advertising and revenue. It is no secret that over the past decades the food industry has perfected the art of advertising. Pepsi and Coke use those 6.5 billion dollars to persuade just about anyone to buy just about anything. And over the years this industry has honed one aspect of the producer-consumer transaction to ensure that these buyers are coming back for more. Sugar is the food industry’s not-so-secret weapon.

Sugar is powerful for two reasons: it is cheap and it is addictive. Sugar is ridiculously cheap. Twenty cents a pound cheap. Americans love sugar. The average American consumes 66 pounds of sugar a year; about 82 grams per day. This excessive amount of sugar consumption is both detrimental to the health of America and catapulting the nation further into an undeniable Sugar Crisis. Americans are addicted to sugar. Sugar activates the the same pleasure sensors in the brain as cocaine and heroin. When people consume sugar, dopamine is released in the brain. Therefore we become addicted. And therefore, like various illegal drugs, the body must go through withdrawal when sugar consumption is limited and cravings ensue. This is how the food industry thrives to such an extent. People keep coming back for more because they quite literally need it. The war against Big Soda is the quieter crisis of the mountains, yet its long term impacts may prove to be more detrimental to a wider scope of people than the also harrowing but more widely publicized Opioid Crisis. Sugar is not all bad, such that molecularly, glucose is the body’s main energy source, but the rate at which America is consuming sugar is leading to ever-increasing rates of cardiovascular disease including diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. In the United States, 8.3 percent of the population has diabetes, which is more severe than the overall global rate of 5.2 percent. In October 2017 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new statistics showing that 60 percent of American adults and 20 percent of American adolescents are obese; these are the highest rates of obesity observed in American history.

Big Soda is economically powerful, most public health efforts to tax sugary drinks or reduce sugar intake do not remotely make an impact in the face of this multibillion dollar machine. The effects of America’s deepening sugar crisis in one specific region -Appalachia- are particularly striking. The most economically depressed region of the United States. Some counties in this region, particularly many of those in Kentucky, have a poverty rate much higher than the national 15.6 percent, so much so that nearly one in every four individuals is living under the poverty line. For reference, in a family of three a household living under the poverty line in the United States in 2017 makes at the most $25,520 annually. To make matters worse, an increasingly elitist mentality is being adopted throughout the nation towards Appalachia. Stereotypes lingering from the yellow journalism of the early twentieth century depict the people as ignorant, uneducated, and even depraved. Perpetuating these prejudices adds insult to an already debilitating injury. America has betrayed what was once one of her most economically prosperous regions by depleting the region’s natural resources and then leaving millions of people to fend for themselves when other financial ventures interested the nation more. In the early twentieth century, Americans flocked to Appalachia solely to work in the coal mines or in the logging industry. Less than a century later the nation found that it was more profitable to outsource jobs for these industries. Particularly in the coal mining community, what was left after a devastating amount of outsourcing were stray struggling mining operations that could no longer afford to pay wages higher than minimum wage due to the sudden decrease in national reliance on domestic operations for coal and a growing unemployed lower class workforce, void of job opportunities. Businesses do not relocate to Appalachia. There is just no persuasive financial basis for doing so. Mountains are one of the geographical obstacles that inhibit regions such as Appalachia from becoming thriving industrial cities. This is why instead of seeing new jobs come in as old jobs leave and as the economy develops to suit changing preferences, jobs are simply flowing out of Appalachia creating an immobile lower class, now unemployed.

In biology, a positive feedback loop intensifies changes and makes conditions increasingly unstable. Appalachia is not only stuck in a vicious cycle, but the region is faced with a positive feedback loop. This is where Big Soda factors in. Big Soda is not to blame for the economic decline of the Appalachian region. But now, the food industry exploits the uninformed population and capitalizes off the cycle of poverty. In twenty-first century America, grocery store shelves are packed end to end with processed foods, full of delicious refined grains and sugars. These same items are also the cheapest items in the store. Processed foods are convenient both in terms of price and preparation for families working long hours for minimum wage. Often health concerns remain as an afterthought. Yet it is due to these eating habits that diabetes and obesity are so high in this region.

Annually there is a free dental clinic that provides medical attention to thousands of individuals without insurance in the Appalachian region for about a week each year. The clinics reported to have had to remove almost entire mouths of teeth on several occasions due to such a poor diet and lack of dental upkeep. Soda culture is so prevalent in counties throughout the region like in Western Virginia and Eastern Kentucky that the term “Mountain Dew Mouth” has been coined to describe numerous cavities due to the excessive consumption of sugary beverages. What was so striking about these clinics is that individuals who participated gave their input on the crisis and it became obvious that the public is aware of the health effects of sugar but do not see a solution to the widespread poor diet. How can the United States lift the Mountains from the valleys of their economic despair without infringing on the democratic and capitalistic rights of Big Soda? As the nation becomes more conscious of public health perhaps the health of a region will become less of an abstract moral dilemma and will be considered a concrete building block in the immediate socioeconomic reconstruction of a region in despair. Perhaps as cigarettes are seen to cause cancer, sugar will be seen to cause diabetes and obesity and the Food Drug Administration will no longer concede that pumping the entire national workforce with unlimited amounts of an addictive substance is acceptable for the public good. There is a fine line between too much sugar and enough for the functioning of the body, just as there is a fine line between what a democratic government should be able to restrict and what should be restricted in the light of public health. There is no definitive answer to what can be done to solve the sugar crisis, but is it really worth drinking Mountain Dew?

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