The Amazing Statistics and Dangers of Soda Pop

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March 10, 2001 | 115,007 views

BySally Squires

Americans drink more soda pop than ever before:

Kids are heavy consumers of soft drinks, according to the U.S.Department of Agriculture, and they are guzzling soda pop at unprecedentedrates.

Carbonated sodapop provides more added sugar in a typical 2-year-old toddler'sdiet than cookies, candies and ice cream combined.

Fifty-six percent of 8-year-olds down soft drinks daily, and athird of teenage boys drink at leastthree cans of soda pop per day.

Not only are soft drinks widely available everywhere, from fastfood restaurants to video stores, they're now sold in 60percent of all public and private middle schools and high schoolsnationwide, according to the National Soft Drink Association.A few schools are even giving away soft drinks to students who buyschool lunches.

As soda pop becomes the beverage of choice among the nation's young-- and as soda marketers focus on brand-building among younger andyounger consumers -- public health officials, school boards, parents,consumer groups and even the soft drink industry are faced withnagging questions:

Last week, representatives of the soft drink industry, concernedthat public opinion and public policy may turn against them, willstaged a three-day "fly-in" to lobby Congress to maintainsoft drinks sales in schools; and to educate lawmakers on the "properperspective" on soft drink use.

The industry plans to counter a US Department of Agriculture proposal,announced in January, that would require all foods sold in schoolsto meet federal nutrition standards. That would mean that snackfoods and soft drinks would have to meet the same standards as schoollunches.

Nearly everyone by now has heard the litany on the presumed healtheffects of soft drinks:

But does drinking soda pop really cause those things?

To help separate fact from fiction, the Health section reviewedthe latest scientific findings and asked an array of experts onboth sides of the debate to weigh in on the topic. Be forewarned,however: Compared with the data available on tobacco and even dietaryfat, the scientific evidence on soft drinks is less developed. Theresults can be a lot like soft drinks themselves, both sweet andsticky.


One very recent, independent, peer-reviewed study demonstratesa strong link between soda consumptionand childhood obesity.

One previous industry-supported, unpublished study showed no link.Explanations of the mechanism by which soda may lead to obesityhave not yet been proved, though the evidence for them is strong.

Many people have long assumed that soda -- high in calories andsugar, low in nutrients -- can make kids fat. But until this monththere was no solid, scientific evidence demonstrating this.

Reporting in The Lancet, a British medical journal, a team of Harvardresearchers presented the first evidence linking soft drink consumptionto childhood obesity. They found that 12-year-olds who drank softdrinks regularly were more likely to be overweight than those whodidn't.

For each additional daily serving of sugar-sweetenedsoft drink consumed during the nearly two-year study, the risk ofobesity increased 1.6 times.

Obesity experts called the Harvard findings important and praisedthe study for being prospective. In other words, the Harvard researchersspent 19 months following the children, rather than capturing asnapshot of data from just one day. It's considered statisticallymore valuable to conduct a study over a long period of time.

Researchers found that schoolchildren who drank soft drinks consumedalmost 200 more calories per day than their counterparts who didn'tdown soft drinks. That finding helps support the notion that wedon't compensate well for calories in liquid form.

Tooth Decay

Here's one health effect that even the soft drink industry admits,grudgingly, has merit. In a carefully worded statement, the NSDAsays that "there's no scientific evidence that consumptionof sugars per se has any negative effect other than dental caries."But the association also correctly notes that soft drinks aren'tthe sole cause of tooth decay.

In fact, a lot of sugary foods, from fruit juices to candy andeven raisins and other dried fruit, have what dentists refer toas "cariogenic properties," which is to say they can causetooth decay.

Okay, so how many more cavities are soft drink consumers likelyto get compared with people who don't drink soda? This is whereit gets complicated.

A federally funded study of nearly 3,200 Americans 9 to 29 yearsold conducted between 1971 and 1974 showed a direct link betweentooth decay and soft drinks. Numerous other studies have shownthe same link throughout the world, from Sweden to Iraq.

But sugar isn't the only ingredient in soft drinks that causestooth problems. The acids in soda pop are also notorious for etchingtooth enamel in ways that can lead to cavities. "Acid beginsto dissolve tooth enamel in only 20 minutes," notes the OhioDental Association in a release issued earlier this month.

Caffeine Dependence

The stimulant properties and dependence potential of caffeine insoda are well documented, as are their effects on children.

Ever tried going without your usual cup of java on the weekend?If so, you may have experienced a splitting headache, a slight risein blood pressure, irritability and maybe even some stomach problems.

These well-documented symptoms describe the typical withdrawalprocess suffered by about half of regular caffeine consumers whogo without their usual dose.

The soft drink industry agrees that caffeine causes the same effectsin children as adults, but officials also note that there is widevariation in how people respond to caffeine. The simple solution,the industry says, is to choose a soda pop that is caffeine-free.All big soda makers offer products with either low or no caffeine.

That may be a good idea, though it raises the question of whethersoda machines in schools should be permitted to offer caffeinatedbeverages or at least be obligated to offer a significant proportionof caffeine-free products.

It also raises the question of how one determines a product's caffeinecontent. Nutrition labels are not required to divulge that information.If a beverage contains caffeine, it must be included in the ingredientlist, but there's no way to tell how much a beverage has, and there'slittle logic or predictability to the way caffeine is deployed throughouta product line.

Okay, so most enlightened consumers already know that colas containa fair amount of caffeine. It turns out to be 35to 38 milligrams per 12-ounce can, or roughly 28 percentof the amount found in an 8-ounce cup of coffee. But few know thatdiet colas -- usually chosenby those who are trying to dodge calories and/or sugar -- oftenpack a lot more caffeine.

A 12-ounce can of Diet Coke, for example, has about 42 milligramsof caffeine -- seven more than the same amount of Coke Classic.A can of Pepsi One has about 56 milligrams of caffeine -- 18 milligramsmore than both regular Pepsi and Diet Pepsi.

Even harder to figure out is the caffeine distribution in otherflavors of soda pop. Many brands of root beer contain no caffeine.An exception is Barq's, made by the Coca-Cola Co., which has has23 milligrams per 12-ounce can. Sprite,7-Up and ginger ale are caffeine-free. But Mountain Dew,the curiously named Mello Yellow, Sun Drop Regular, Jolt and dietas well as regular Sunkist orange soda all pack caffeine.

Caffeine occurs naturally in kola nuts, an ingredient of cola softdrinks. But why is this drug, which is known to create physicaldependence, added to other soft drinks?

The industry line is that small amounts are added for taste, notfor the drug's power to sustain demand for the products that containit. Caffeine's bitter taste, they say, enhances other flavors. "Ithas been a part of almost every cola -- and pepper-type beverage-- since they were first formulated more than 100 years ago,"according to the National Soft Drink Association.

But recent blind taste tests conducted by Roland Griffiths at JohnsHopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore found that only8 percent of regular soft drink consumerscould identify the difference between regular and caffeine-freesoft drinks.

The study included only subjects who reported that they drank softdrinks mainly for their caffeine content. In other words, more than90 percent of the self-diagnosed caffeine cravers in this smallsample could not detect the presence of caffeine.

That's why the great popularity of caffeinated soft drinks is drivennot so much by subtle taste effects as by the mood-altering andphysical dependence of caffeine that drives the daily self-administration.

And the unknown could be especially troublesome for the developingbrains of children and adolescents. Logic dictates that when youare dependent on a drug, you are really upsetting the normal balancesof neurochemistry in the brain. The fact that kids have withdrawalsigns and symptoms when the caffeine is stopped is a good indicationthat something has been profoundly disturbed in the brain.

Exactly where that leads is anybody's guess -- which is to saythere is little good research on the effects of caffeine on kids'developing brains.

Bone Weakening

Animal studies demonstrate that phosphorus,a common ingredient in soda, can deplete bones of calcium.

And two recent human studies suggest that girls who drink moresoda are more prone to broken bones. The industry denies that sodaplays a role in bone weakening.

Animal studies -- mostly involving rats -- point to clear and consistentbone loss with the use of cola beverages. But as scientists liketo point out, humans and rats are not exactly the same.

Even so, there's been concern among the research community, publichealth officials and government agencies over the high phosphoruscontent in the US diet. Phosphorus -- which occurs naturally insome foods and is used as an additive in many others -- appearsto weaken bones by promoting the loss of calcium. With less calciumavailable, the bones become more porous and prone to fracture.

The soft drink industry argues that the phosphoric acid in sodapop contributes only about 2 percent of the phosphorus in the typicalUS diet, with a 12-ounce can of soda pop averaging about 30 milligrams.

There's growing concern that even a few cans of soda today canbe damaging when they are consumed during the peak bone-buildingyears of childhood and adolescence. A 1996 study published in theJournal of Nutrition by the FDA's Office of Special Nutritionalsnoted that a pattern of high phosphorus/low calcium consumption,common in the American diet, is not conducive to optimizing peakbone mass in young women.

A 1994 Harvard study of bone fractures in teenage athletes founda strong association between cola beverageconsumption and bone fractures in 14-year-old girls.The girls who drank cola were about five times more likely to sufferbone fractures than girls who didn't consume soda pop.

Besides, to many researchers, the combination of rising obesityand bone weakening has the potential to synergistically underminefuture health. Adolescents and kids don't think long-term. But whathappens when these soft-drinking people become young or middle-agedadults and they have osteoporosis, sedentary living and obesity?

By that time, switching to water, milkor fruit juice may be too little, too late.

I suspect many readers are not surprised by the following statistics,but as a person who has not had any soda for many years I just aboutfell off my chair with these numbers.

If you are still drinking soda this is something that is quitesimple to stop. In my mind there is absolutely no justificationto drink soda. Both sugar and Nutrasweet™ are deadly to yourhealth and will gradually rob you of it. So stick to pure water,one quart for every 50 pounds of body weight.

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