Losing Its Fizz
Scientists are targeting soft drinks as the next cigarettes
One of every five calories in the North American diet is liquid, making
soda consumers’ single biggest calorie source. In response, nutrition
experts are stepping up their long-standing fight against sugary soft
One of every five calories in the North American diet is liquid, making soda consumers’ single biggest calorie source. In response, nutrition experts are stepping up their long-standing fight against sugary soft drinks.
In recently published science journals, two groups of researchers set out to add evidence to the theory that soda and other sugar-sweetened drinks don’t just go hand-in-hand with obesity, but could actually be a leading cause of it.
Proving this could help make the case for higher taxes on soda, restrictions on how and where it is sold – maybe even a surgeon general’s warning on labels.
“We’ve done it with cigarettes,” says one scientist advocating this, Barry Popkin at the University of North Carolina.
And a noted Canadian medical professional has also made the analogy to tobacco. Dr Ruth Collins-Nakai, former president of the Canadian Medical Association and cardiologist, has repeatedly called on governments to ban junk food sales at all schools in Canada.
“The corollary is that you make unhealthy choices less available and one way to do that is to tax them. Certainly it works for cigarettes.”
In the most recent soft drink development south of the border, Coca-Cola has said they will begin adding caffeine content information to their labels. The company already includes this information on two of their energy drinks.
“I think that’s laughable,” says Richard Adamson, a senior science consultant to the American Beverage Association. Adamson points to the lack of exercise and poor eating habits as far bigger contributors to western society’s weight woes.
“Unfortunately we have become easy targets – scapegoats to some degree – and as an industry we must fight for our right to exist in the marketplace along side all other forms of retailing,” says Jeff Suitor, president of the Canadian Automatic Merchandising Association (CAMA).
CAMA’s primary mission and objective is to be the champion for the vending and office coffee service providers in Canada. Suitor says part of their mandate is to promote vending as a viable, credible route to market method of retailing, which sells substantial volumes of merchandise to millions of consumers every day.
“CAMA has initiated new strategies that are aimed at promoting our industry in a positive manner reinforcing our ability to be a convenient, legitimate route to market vehicle for all products that can be dispensed through our vendors meeting the demand in the venues we serve. Unlike the soft drink manufacturers, whose issues are more product specific and cross over affecting other channels, CAMA’s issues are all about defending vending as a method of retailing to the general public,” says Suitor.
“From CAMA’s perspective, we are very aware of the current trends and pressures facing our society today and how they are impacting our businesses; specifically relating to the public’s perception of our industry in relationship to obesity, nutrition and healthy living,” Suitor adds. “In light of recent ads being run on TV and in newsprint negatively depicting the vending machine and suggesting that it is the main cause for all health related problems or that healthy choices can’t be found in our retailers is misleading the public.”
Beverage companies seem worried. Some are making sodas “healthier” by adding calcium and vitamins, and pushing fortified but sugary sports drinks in schools that ban soda. This could help them duck any regulations aimed at “empty calorie” drinks, according to Jennifer Follett.
A year ago, the United States partly followed the example set in Canada. The distributors agreed to stop selling non-diet sodas to most public school boards. In 2005, Refreshments Canada voluntarily removed soft drinks from elementary schools – although realistically the move had little true effect other than a political demonstration.
The move positioned the sale of bottled water, sports drinks and dairy beverages in a position of greater leverage. Whereas some U.S. school boards banned vending machines outright, in Canada the locations were preserved as long as carbonated
beverages were not sold.
“Even defining milk is getting tough these days,” with so many flavoured varieties and sweetened liquid yogurts, Follett says.
And diet is hard to study. Most people drink at least some sweetened beverages and also get calories from other drinks, like milk and orange juice, diluting the strength of any observations about excess weight from soda alone.
Children are growing and gaining weight naturally, “so we have this added complication” of trying to determine how much extra gain is due to sweet-drink consumption, says nutrition expert Alison Field.
“Given these caveats, it’s amazing the association we do see,” she says.
Field was among hundreds of scientists who packed a “mock trial” of such drinks at a conference of the Obesity Society last year in Vancouver.
In late fall 2006, an all-party committee from the B.C. legislature reported that 25 per cent of the province’s
children were obese and recommended removing the exemption under the Social Service Tax Act that applies to candies, confections and soft drinks.
“Childhood obesity is a problem our province can no longer afford to ignore,” the report says. It goes on to make 36 recommendations, including an outright ban on “junk food” from school vending machines in facilities operated and funded by the provincial government.
In Nova Scotia, a three-year plan is in place to remove high calorie beverages and snack foods from the schools. Only 100 per cent juice, water and milk was allowed for sale, effective this January.
However, in Manitoba critics say an outright ban would be difficult to manage. Instead, says education minister Peter Bjornson, voluntary guidelines encourage schools to offer healthier foods and drinks in the vending machines and cafeterias.
“If you look at the proximity to schools of convenience stores or some fast-food restaurants, the access is still there.”
Here is the “food police” indictment of soda and its sugar-sweetened co-conspirators. You be the judge:
Count One: Guilt by association
Soft drink consumption rose more than 60 per cent among adults and more than doubled in kids from 1977-97. The prevalence of obesity roughly doubled in that time.
Numerous studies link sugary drink consumption with weight gain or obesity. One study involving 548 schoolchildren found that for each additional sweet drink consumed per day, the odds of
obesity increased 60 per cent.
Another study involving 51,603 nurses compared two periods, 1991-95 and 1995-99, and found that women whose soda drinking increased had bigger rises in body-mass index than those who drank less or the same.
Count Two: Physical evidence
Biologically, the calories from sugar-sweetened beverages are fundamentally different in the body than those from food.
The main sweetener in soda – high-fructose corn syrup – can increase fats in the blood called triglycerides, which raises the risk of heart problems, diabetes and other health woes.
This sweetener also doesn’t spur production of insulin to make the body “process” calories, nor does it spur
leptin, a substance that tamps down appetite, as other carbohydrates do.
Count Three: Bad influence on others
Sugar-sweetened beverages affect the intake of other foods, such as lowering milk consumption. Popkin contends they also may be psychological triggers of poor eating habits and cravings for fast food.
He examined dietary patterns of 9,500 adults in a study from 1999-2002. Those who drank healthier beverages – water, low-fat milk, unsweetened coffee or tea – were more likely to eat vegetables and less likely to eat fast food.
Conversely, “fast-food consumption was doubled if they were high soda consumers and vegetable consumption was halved,” he reasons.
Count Four: Consistency of evidence
Many studies of different types link sugary drinks and weight gain or obesity. Some even show a “dose-response” relationship – as consumption rises, so does weight.
One of the country’s leading epidemiologists who has no firm stake in the debate, the American Cancer Society’s Dr. Michael Thun, thinks the evidence adds up to a conviction.
“Caloric imbalance causes obesity, so in the sense that any one part of the diet is contributing excess calories, it’s contributing causally to the obesity,” Thun said. “It doesn’t mean that something is the only cause. It means that in the absence of that factor there would be less of that condition.”
Adamson, the beverage industry spokesman, disagrees. He cites a 2004 Harvard study of more than 10,000 children that tied consumption of sugar-added beverages to body-mass index gain in boys but not girls, a gender difference that warrants a “jaundiced eye” to claims that soda is at fault, he said.
People who consume lots of fresh-squeezed juice, vegetables and fruits are fundamentally not the same as those who subsist on colas and bologna sandwiches, says Adam Drewnowski, director of nutritional sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.
He thinks government subsidies of fruits and vegetables would be better public policy than taxing a cheap source of calories.
As for the vending industry, Suitor counters that “reluctantly” soft drink manufacturers will have to change their product offerings in certain venues.
“I think they will have to conform to meet demand influenced by the various forms of regulations now emerging. Will automated retailing go away? Not likely. But we will be transformed into better, creative, responsible marketers. To quote a cliché, ‘where one door closes others open.’ This will be our destiny.”o
Marilynn Marchione, Associated Press, contributed to this story.