Insights by Goldie
ask Goldie!

Sound Consumer | August 2001

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

Q: Several questions have come in about soda pop, and now seems like a good time to take a closer look, since the sippin' season is in full swing. "Sip, sippin' soda, sip, sippin' soda, sip sippin' soda through a straw!" Remember that old tune? It was the tip of the proverbial iceberg in terms of how much a part of our culture is consumed by consuming sodas.

A: Americans currently spend around $60 billion a year buying more than 15 billion gallons of these so-called soft drinks, or more than a 12-ounce daily serving for every adult and child in the U.S. That's more than 30 percent of all beverages consumed in this country. The statistics are especially shocking when we look at some of the figures for children and adolescents:

  • Twenty percent of babies and toddlers under two years are given soda. (Note: in a marketing stroke of genius, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper and Seven-Up sold their logo licensing rights to a major baby bottle maker, Munchkin Bottling, Inc. Now infants and toddlers whose bottles bear the logos are four times more likely to be given soda than if their bottles are plain. Way to go PepsiCo. Get 'em while they're young!)
  • Sixty percent of eight-year-olds drink soda daily.
  • Thirty percent of teenage boys guzzle nearly 40 ounces a day, with 10 percent of them downing more than seven cans.
  • Teenage girls who drink sodas average more than two 12-ounce cans a day, and 10 percent of them consume the equivalent of five 12-ounce cans.

Small wonder, when you consider that schools have sold out to the scions of soda. Pepsi, Coke or other sodas are now hawked in at least 60 percent of all public and private middle and high schools nationwide.

Soda drinkers often are guilty of skipping meals and skimping on high-calcium foods.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) terms these products "liquid candy," since a 12-ounce serving typically contains 10 teaspoons of sugar (40 grams). That's about the maximum amount of all added sugar that an adult should have over the course of a day. The calories from 10 teaspoons of sugar total (40 grams x 4 calories per gram) 160 calories per 12-ounce can.

Let's examine some of the potential health concerns that have been raised.

Does soda contribute to obesity?
Those so-called "empty" calories are still calories, although they are empty of any nutrients other than carbohydrates. As any sweet tooth knows, one calls for another, so those multiple servings can be adding hundreds of empty calories a day. When they're accompanied by less exercise, clearly there's a cause and effect aspect to soda consumption and obesity. One recent study found that sodas provide more calories to overweight youth than to normal weight youth. Most striking was the effect on teenage boys: soda provides more than 10 percent of calories consumed by overweight boys, but only about 7.6 percent of calories for non-overweight boys.

What about drinking diet sodas to cut calories?
When I hear that I always want to respond, "What about drinking water to cut calories?" But millions of Americans have responded to the heavy marketing campaigns of aspartame (Nutra-Sweet) and non-caloric sodas, buying into the something-for-nothing idea. Several studies indicate that these may, in fact, increase appetite. It's also noted that consumers tend to eat other higher calorie foods with the no-calorie beverage, consuming the same number of calories, if not more! Questions remain regarding safety of non-caloric sweeteners, which have had essentially no controlled human studies, only studies on rats.

Is there any connection between phosphorous in sodas and weak bones or osteoporosis?
Not surprisingly, the National Soft Drink Association (NSDA) vehemently denies any possible connection. They quote the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as saying phosphate doesn't significantly affect calcium loss or status. The NSDA also says, "Soft drinks contain only about two percent of total phosphorous in the average diet — much less than milk and about the same as orange juice. Dairy products, meats, grains and nuts are by far the largest source of phosphorus in the diet." Numerically, they may be accurate. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has set three grams per day as the limit of phosphorus for children ages one to eight years, and four grams per day for ages nine and up. Because phosphorus isn't regulated by the body as much as calcium, blood phosphate levels can rise slightly with a high phosphorous diet, especially after meals.

High blood phosphate levels reduce formation of the active form of Vitamin D in the kidneys, leading to less calcium absorption and retention. Some nutrition advisers state that it's the calcium-phosphorus ratio in the diet that's critical: A ratio of one part calcium to one part phosphorous promotes the highest level of calcium. Sodas can have ratios in excess of one part calcium to 30 parts phosphorus, draining calcium from bones and teeth.

Phosphorous may be a real red herring, though, since the connection to bone weakening and osteoporosis is perhaps more the result of a lifestyle that includes drinking soda. Soda drinkers often are guilty of skipping meals, downing a soda instead of milk or calcium fortified soy or other non-dairy milk, and avoiding high calcium foods such as dark leafy greens, tofu, corn tortillas or calcium supplements. These disturbing trends in children and youth, coupled with an increase in more sedentary habits, especially lack of regular, daily, weight-bearing exercise, have contributed to a much higher incidence of broken bones in soda drinking teenagers than non-soda drinkers. The higher the soda consumption, the higher the rate of broken bones.

What about caffeine in sodas?
Many colas and other sodas contain substantial quantities of caffeine, and children, especially, shouldn't be having caffeine.

Do sodas cause tooth decay?
They certainly do contribute to it, but perhaps no more (and maybe even less!) than eating any chewy, sticky dried fruit or candy bar. The sugars and the acids in sodas (and fruit and fruit juice) team up as the culprits-in-crime. The NSDA even throws in the towel on this one, but they counter that the decaying effects can be lessened by rinsing the mouth out or brushing after sipping. (Yeah, sure. Your kid will always remember to do that, right?).

The "toughie:" Is natural soda really any better for us, than the mass-marketed stuff?
It depends what criteria are applied, but in most respects, yes, IF the question is really "soda versus soda." In other words, bluntly, if you're just substituting multiple cans of delicious natural food company sodas regularly for "the other stuff," then you're still getting lots of empty calories, whether from sucrose or fructose or honey! BUT, you are NOT getting artificial colors, artificial flavors, the BHA, BHT or other preservatives added to some sodas, and you aren't getting phosphoric acid in natural sodas. Natural soda brands achieve the "bite" of acidity by the use of citric acid, tartaric acid or ascorbic acid. And all carbonated beverages, whether natural brands or not, contain some amount of carbonic acid (which is the consequence of adding carbon dioxide to water to get the "fizz" of carbonation.)

Some natural health advisers, naturopaths and nutritionists recommend that all soda pop and other carbonated beverages be eliminated, or tightly limited, as they can interfere with digestion. Others — probably most — would advise that an occasional natural soda is okay to include in an otherwise well-balanced diet, for healthy children and adults.

In our house, we rarely have soda pop, but occasionally add a little frozen organic fruit juice concentrate to a chilled fizzy mineral water. Either way, bubbles add a little "zing" to life, tickle the tongue, and it's a fun treat — now and then.

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