Does God Really Care if I Drink Pepsi?

By Donna Lee Schillinger

What could be wrong with Pepsi? Sugar, caffeine, caramel coloring? In case you haven’t come across it yet on Facebook or e-mail, the conservative Christian community is intermittently flaming about the fact that Pepsi develops products with the aid of a company called Senomyx (that’s pronounced, ironically, sin-o-mix), which is using a controversial human-derived cell in developing food flavorings and additives. It seems, though Snopes.com has only gone so far as to call it “undetermined,” that Senomyx uses human embryonic kidney (HEK) 293 cultured cells (meaning they are made in a lab) that came originally from the kidneys of an aborted fetus. If you’re reading about this for the first time, you’re probably thinking this is so absurd that it can’t be true; at least, that’s what I thought. After some digging, I have now concluded that it’s so absurd that it must be true. Even so, it’s just the next slip down on the slope of using embryonic stem cells for research of any kind.

Last June, CBS News reported that “HEK 293 cells are widely used in pharmaceutical research,” and confirmed that the “cells trace their origins to a single fetal kidney.” However, these cells are not being used in food and beverage products – if you drink Pepsi, you’re not going to be ingesting aborted fetal kidney, like some of these inflammatory e-mails would have us believe. Instead, Senomyx uses the cells to mimic taste receptors, in a way understood only by lab geeks, to predict whether or not a given flavor will satisfy our human craving for sweet and salty. An upcoming Pepsi product may be the first to benefit from HEK 293 cell-based taste research results, and in turn, Senomyx will likely reap product royalties.

Curious to try that new Pepsi product? Personally, knowing this much, I’d order water over Pepsi anytime. “It’s the ewww factor,” says Debi Vinnedge , executive director of Children of God for Life, self-proclaimed “world leaders for ethical vaccines, medicines and consumer products.”

“Ewww.” Yeah, I’m feelin’ it, but I didn’t need slanderously hyped up headlines to make me feel it – the truth is enough. However much I appreciate the work of these prolife watchdogs, it aggravates me to no end when conservative Christians (let’s be real, they seem to be the only Christians doing this) hype the truth (which, hmm, last time I checked made it into a lie) in efforts to rally Christians to action. The press release Children of God for Life issued on March 5, 2012, for a fine example, announced, “Obama agency rules PepsiCo cannibalizing aborted fetus is ‘ordinary business.’” The Security Exchange Commission ruled that this matter was not one in which shareholders should be involving themselves – but why not take a sucker punch at Obama; after all, he appointed the chair of the SEC, didn’t he? And “cannibalizing” is simply inaccurate.

Clearly, using aborted fetal remains to do anything is despicable and a sign of our degenerate times, but it does not give Christians cause or justification to sensationalize the truth and report on par with the National Inquirer. This rampant sensationalism in reporting and sharing news about politics, science and certain Christians not preaching the right brand of good news is hurting the cause of Christ as much as anything today. These loud and unreasonable voices garner the attention they are seeking, but is this the kind of attention Christ wants to bring to His bride? Where, oh Church of Christ, is your humility, meekness, mercy, purity and peace-seeking? In our hunger and thirst for righteousness, we are starving all of these other, equally important qualities, and even undermining the righteousness we crave.

And yet the sin of overreacting is minor compared to the sin of not reacting at all. The greater danger here is to say “Ewww,” and in the next unconscionable breath, order a Pepsi. I don’t mean to say that the correct response is to give up Pepsi, but I do mean to clearly say that this information should give us pause and cause to reflect – and it is precisely this reflection and discussion that seems distressingly missing from Facebook and the blogosphere. Stop to consider that Pepsi, as well as Kraft, Coca-Cola and Nestle (also associated with Senomyx), may profit from research that would not be possible without the remains of an aborted child. If you call yourself prolife, this should matter to you. If you consider yourself morally superior to a cannibal, this should matter to you.

So what reaction is Christ-like, if spreading hyperbole over the Internet is not? However disturbing, all this is actually just more of the same contamination of body and spirit that is part of living in a sinful world, and should simply strengthen our resolve to live a life set apart, as the Bible urges in II Cor. 7:1, “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.”

If you are a follower of Christ, you should already be well on your way to coming out and being separate (II Cor. 6:17). This new information just ups the ante on a commitment you have already made. Are you in, or not? (If I may borrow a gambling analogy to talk about living holy.)

There are a number of ways this “purifying” can live itself out, including the boycott of Pepsi products that Children of God for Life and other organizations are calling for. However, is it enough to boycott Pepsi, when Kraft, Coca-Cola and Nestle also do business with Senomyx? Aren’t we just drawing a line in the sand to single out Pepsi? Do I not bring as much guilt on myself by eating Kraft mac and cheese as I do by drinking a Pepsi? Or am I misunderstanding this whole boycott strategy? Maybe it’s not about personal accountability and living according to our espoused principles. Maybe it’s just exercising market pressure to get the company to sever its ties with Senomyx. Would that make us all happy? Then we can go back to guilt-free indulgence in a branded mixture of sugar, caffeine and caramel coloring?

Regardless of the motive, I believe a boycott would be effective and that Christians should use their purchasing power to ethical ends. Campbell’s Soup Company was also associated with Senomyx and expediently severed ties with the company. Mmm, Mmm Good for them! Recently, as a result of consumer outrage, Starbucks announced that it will likely cease using beetle extract to give its Strawberry and Crème Frappuccino that pretty pink color. Really? Beetle extract? Who cares! That’s a gourmet meal in parts of Indonesia! May the general population’s discombobulation over beetle extract in frappuccino not shame us! If they can get Starbucks to remove the beetle juice, surely Christian consumers can move Pepsi, Kraft, Coca-Cola and Nestle to adopt ethical research and development standards. So, yes, at a bare minimum, use your consumer power to make the world a better place. But don’t limit yourself to this issue only! Feel free to bring your conscience to all your future purchasing decisions –which, I’ll just jump to the logical conclusion here – may mean you never again purchase new jewelry and only shop the perimeter of the grocery store for organic, free-trade products.

Uh oh, living this “set apart” life is starting to sound complicated, isn’t it? It really isn’t so much complicated as it is countercultural, and if you’re not sure whether you’ve been called to a countercultural lifestyle search the scriptures for the answer.

Pepsi/Senomyx is today’s flashpoint, but recall, the cells in question were developed in the early 1970s, and have been in continuous, undisputed use in the development of pharmaceuticals ever since. Likely, groups like Children of God for Life were counting on a comestible product development to become something of a foothold on this slippery slope. However, their outrage campaign doesn’t seem to be spreading past conservative Christian circles. Possibly the disdainful tactics are to blame, but 40 years of continuous HEK 293 cells supports the more likely conclusion: people just don’t care enough – certainly not enough to jump on a “Boycott Pepsi” bandwagon.

“Soylent Green,” a 1973 sci-fi movie, depicted a time in the future when food was so scarce that everyone subsisted on Soylent Green, a high-energy plankton cracker made by Soylent Corporation. The movie ends with the protagonist Robert Thorn, a police detective, discovering that the oceans are actually barren of plankton and that Soylent Green is made from human corpses. As I reflect on how inconsequential the news of the Pepsi/Senomyx connection has been, I find myself wondering beyond the ending of that movie to what sort of a response there might have been to Thorn’s pronouncement that Soylent Green was made from human remains. If the month since the Pepsi/Senomyx headlines are any indication, I suspect there might have been a quite a stir at dinner that evening, but no one would have gone hungry.

Donna Lee Schillinger is the author of On My Own Now: Straight Talk from the Proverbs for Young Christian Women who Want to Remain Pure, Debt-free and Regret-free and editor of the recent anthology Purity’s Big Payoff/Premarital Sex is a Big Rip-off.
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