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NEW YORK — As criticism over sugary soft drinks intensifies, Coke, Pepsi, and Dr Pepper are rolling out new vending machines that will put calorie counts right at your fingertips.
The move comes ahead of a new regulation that would require restaurant chains and vending machines to post calorie information as early as next year, although the timetable and specifics for complying with that requirement are still being worked out.
"They're seeing the writing on the wall and want to say that it's corporate responsibility," said Mike Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which advocates for food safety and nutrition.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed a less-stringent amendment that would allow vending operators to post the information on a poster on the side of the machine, Jacobson said. But he said the industry's announcement Monday shows posting calories right on machines is perfectly feasible.
"This would be an important step forward," he said. "Currently, people don't think about calories when they go up to a vending machine. Having the calories right on the button will help them make choices."
The American Beverage Association, which represents Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc., and Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc., said the calorie counts will be on the buttons of the machines, which will also feature small decals reminding the thirsty that they can choose a low-calorie drink.
The vending machines will launch in Chicago and San Antonio municipal buildings in 2013 before appearing nationally.
Without providing specifics, the American Beverage Association said the machines will also increase the availability of lower-calorie and zero-calorie drinks.
"We have market research that says consumers really like this — they like choice, they like the ability to make choices," said Susan Neely, president of the American Beverage Association.
But she said the group has not done any research on whether providing such information impacts the choices people actually end up making. Notably, the ABA has aggressively fought New York City's ban on the sale of large sugary drinks, as well as measures in other municipalities that would tax soft drinks.
A mock-up of the new machine provided by Coca-Cola showed 20-ounce bottles of its flagship drink and Sprite inside vending machines, with labels on the glass stating "240 calories."
The move also comes as the soft drink industry has come under increasing fire for fueling rising obesity rates. Last month, New York City approved a first-in-the-nation plan to prohibit the sale of sugary drinks over 16 ounces in the city's restaurants, movie theaters, and stadiums. The beverage industry aggressively fought the measure, saying it takes away customer choice.
Soft drink makers are also dealing with shifting consumer habits. Soda consumption per person has been declining in the U.S. since 1998, according to the Beverage Digest. The decline is partly the result of the growing number of drink options, such as flavored waters, bottled teas, and sports drinks.
As a result, Coke, Pepsi and Dr Pepper are focusing on developing more diet drinks, as well as expanding into other types of drinks to reduce their reliance on sodas.
There is no timetable for when all vending machines will be converted. Coke, Pepsi, and Dr Pepper often work with third-party vending machine operators.
Vending machines account for about 13 percent of sales volume, a figure that has remained relatively unchanged in recent years, according to Beverage Digest.