The Vast Majority Of Us Drink Too Many Sugar-Sweetened Beverages

13 Aug


Sugar-sweetened beverages are hurting everyone, and just about everyone is drinking too much of them.

But the largest meta-analysis of its kind just found that some people are more likely to overindulge than others: Young men in the Caribbean consumed more sugary drinks per capita than any other adults in the world, almost 3.5 servings per person each day, according to a report published in the scientific journal Plos One.  

The finding comes on the heels of a June article in the journal Circulation that examined the public health impact of sugary drink consumption. The same team of researchers conducted both studies and reached a conclusion: Sugary drinks cause preventable deaths and disabilities in high-, middle- and low-income countries.

The Plos One meta-analysis looked at 196 surveys in 187 countries, each survey including sugar-sweetened beverage, milk and fruit juice intake among adults. It was the first study of such large scope, according to Gitanjali Singh, an assistant professor at Tufts University and the lead author of both studies.

The researchers found that Latin American and Caribbean residents consumed the most sugary beverages, defined in the survey as non-alcoholic drinks containing more than 50kcal per 8-ounce serving, including soda, fruit drinks, sports and energy drinks, pre-sweetened iced tea and homemade sugar-sweetened beverages. 

South Asian countries consumed the fewest sugary beverages. Globally, men and younger adults aged 20 to 39 consumed more sugary drinks than older adults and women. The study didn’t include children or adolescents. 


More sugary drinks mean more disease 

In the study published in Circulation, the researchers attributed 184,000 worldwide deaths per year — from diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer — to sugar-sweetened beverage consumption.

“These beverages have an impact on health outcomes,” Singh said. “Consistent with the patterns of intake, the disease burdens were highest in Latin America and the Caribbean, and were highest in younger age groups, proportionally,” she added. 

Lest we feel superior about our sugary drink consumption in the United States, note that the U.S. ranked 26th out of 187 countries for the most sugary beverages consumed, amounting to 1 serving per person, per day. That’s more than double the number of sweetened beverages that residents of the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia consume. 

Extensive research shows that sugary drinks a major contributor to obesity in the United States. The obesity epidemic costs the country an estimated $190 billion per year, treating obesity-related conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, according to the Harvard School of Health. 

Predictably, Coca-Cola and Pepsi are not fans of such research

In response to the publication of studies warning of the health dangers of soft drinks, such as obesity, Coca-Cola hired its own experts and funded its own studies. These Coca-Cola-funded studies have overwhelmingly produced results that reinforce the company’s message that lack of exercise, not sugary beverages, are to blame for the obesity epidemic. 

Beverages studies with a financial conflict of interest — like those funded by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the American Beverage Association — were five times more likely to report that there was no correlation between soda consumption, weight gain and obesity than independent studies, according to a report published in the journal Plos Medicine in 2013.

‘Big Soda’ also influences local legislation 

When local governments float legislation to curb America’s sweet tooth, it nearly always fails. That’s in large part because of the country’s powerful beverage lobby, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the ABA — companies that stand to lose considerable profits if Americans eschew soda in favor of tap water.

New York and Chicago legislators both pushed for anti-soda legislation in recent years and failed. In 2012, when Chicago’s City Council proposed a soda tax, Coca-Cola intervened, donating $3 million to community centers in the city. It was an initiative in keeping with the company line that lack of exercise, not soda, is to blame for the country’s obesity crisis. 

And in New York City in 2013, Pepsi did its part to halt then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s soda ban that prohibited businesses from selling sugar-sweetened beverages larger than 16 ounces. The soda giant plastered its trucks (like the one pictured above) with propaganda that framed the soda ban as a battle between Big Government and personal freedoms. The measure was struck down as unconstitutional by the state’s highest court the following year.

In California, a soda-tax bill failed in San Francisco in 2014, the same year that the nation’s first soda tax passed in nearby Berkeley. The succesful bill’s passage was not without opposition: The American Beverage Association raised $2.4 million to fight the bill in Berkeley, which has a population of only 116,000 residents. They raised $9.1 million to help kill the bill in San Francisco.  

We should take a page from Mexico’s soda tax 

In Mexico, where more than 32 percent of adults are obese, the rising disease burden from obesity-related illness prompted public health legislation in the form of a 10 percent tax on sugar-sweetened drinks. It went into effect in January 2014.

Although there was backlash against the tax at the time of implementation — critics, some of whom worked for the beverage industry, argued that the tax would hurt sugar-cane growers and poor Mexicans — the results so far have been largely positive.  

Sales of sugar-sweetened beverages fell 6 percent in 2014, and 12 percent in the last half of the year, The Guardian reported. Among low-income households, the results were even more profound, with sales falling 9 percent over the course of the year and 17 percent in the later half of the year. Clearly, Mexico is doing something right.  

These early results aren’t conclusive, in that fewer people buying soda doesn’t necessarily mean that obesity is decreasing. But for Singh, regional public health policies are a step toward lessening the world’s disease burden. “Our study provides a basis for informing targeted policy development,” she said. “Our work suggests that things like [Mexico’s soda tax] are needed.” 


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