11/29/2012 03:08 pm ET Updated Feb 27, 2013

Hello, Pig? Meet Lipstick

Soda is still just sugar water despite added vitamins.

Big Soda must know it has a public relations problem on its hands. With study after study making plainer the links between sugary-drink consumption and obesity, the industry is under siege. Reducing soda consumption is increasingly a priority of public health officials, and in the years ahead more and more cities will turn to caps on serving sizes (a la New York City's recent ordinance), taxes, and other strategies to drive down consumption. Perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall, soda companies are diversifying their product lines with reduced-calorie sodas, waters, and juice drinks. Another part of the plan: Make soda look like a health food by dressing it up with added vitamins or fiber.

Pig, meet lipstick.

Technically, the Food and Drug Administration frowns on the practice of fortifying snack foods or carbonated beverages with added nutrients. Part of the point of the agency's so-called "Jelly Bean Rule" is to discourage companies from making junk foods appear healthful by adding a dollop of nutrients. But the soda industry is testing the extent to which the agency will enforce that regulation.

7UP is one of the most recent to try this. The latest versions of 7UP have been gussied up with a small amount of synthetic vitamin E in order to justify varieties with names like "Cherry Antioxidant," "Mixed Berry Antioxidant," and "Pomegranate Antioxidant." Of course there is no cherry, berry, or pomegranate juice in any of those products -- and no amount of vitamin E will undo the damage caused by all the high-fructose corn syrup in those drinks. (The Center for Science in the Public Interest's litigation unit is co-counsel in a class-action lawsuit against its parent company, Dr Pepper Snapple group. Recently, that company said it will stop marketing those products.)

Might fiber be the next thing added to soda?

In Japan, PepsiCo is introducing Pepsi Special -- the same old sugary soda but with the addition of fiber substitute dextrin. Generally, more fiber is a good thing. But as with the vitamin E in 7UP, the low-quality fiber in this soda can't begin to undo the increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, or tooth decay posed by all of its sugar.

I hope the Food and Drug Administration starts enforcing its fortification rule again. (A 2008 warning letter from the agency was all it took for Coca-Cola to abandon its fortified sugar water Diet Coke Plus.) In the meantime, we should get our fiber, antioxidants from real foods, especially vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and not artificially-fortified soda.

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