The hard news on soft drinks

Soft drinks are becoming the focus of quite a bit of attention at the health level and even the public policy level. New York City has recently moved to regulate portion sizes of soft drink serves and now the Canadian Medical Association Journal has supported that move and called for Canadian authorities to do the same. All the evidence is that this is an idea that certainly merits public debate.

In September 2012 the New York City Health Department banned the sale of sugared beverages larger than 16 ounces (475ml) at restaurants, mobile food carts, sports arenas, and movie theatres. In an editorial the Canadian Medical Association Journal has now supported this move saying, “Because sugary drinks are the leading source of dietary calories in North America, New York City’s latest measure is a rational strategy to combat obesity on a population level.”

It is hard to argue against this line of thinking if you look at what we know.

Since the early 1990s we have added between 630 kilojoules and 1260 kilojoules to our daily diet. It is estimated that half of this additional amount is from drinks. About 20 per cent of our total energy intake now comes from beverages. Your average 375ml can of soft drink contains around 600 kilojoules. Not only is that a big chunk of your daily kilojoule needs but drinks don’t make you feel full the way food does so you keep consuming them and end up with a higher kilojoule intake overall. The kilojoules though are only one part of the soft drink problem.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is used extensively as a sweetener in soft drinks and other manufactured foods, particularly those made in the United States. Researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Southern California combined to analyse data on the use of HFCS in 42 countries. Their analysis showed that in countries where HFCS is widely used there is a 20 per cent greater chance of developing type 2 diabetes compared to countries who do not use it. This relationship was independent of total sugar use and of obesity.

Then there are concerns over the colourings used in some soft drinks. In the United States, The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban the use of artificial caramel colouring which contains the chemicals 2-methylimidazole (2MI) and 4-methylimidiazole (4MI) . The CSPI says that government-funded studies have shown these two chemicals to be cancer causing. They claim that mouse-based studies have shown them to cause liver, lung, and thyroid cancer as well as leukaemia. According to the CSPI, their concern is with artificial caramel colouring only and not with “real caramel” made by melting sugar. There are four types of artificial colouring and it is two of these that CSPI is questioning. Caramel III amd Caramel IV they claim are the problem colourings. Against this the American Beverage Association (ABA) have claimed that the CSPI is trying to scare consumers without a sound basis in science. So while the jury is out on this one, it is another questionable ingredient in soft drinks.

All in all, no one could argue that soft drinks are a health promoting drink. Moves to regulate portion sizes are not draconian. After all, if you want more you can order a second serve. As obesity and associated diseases spiral out of control though, a message from health authorities to limit soft drink intake is surely nothing more than responsible.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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