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Curbing Sugary Drinks to Curb Obesity in America

Health advocates are launching an initiative to cut one of the direct connections to the American obesity epidemic: sugary drinks. 

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) Monday announced the start of its “Life’s Sweeter with Fewer Sugary Drinks” campaign, whose goal is to reduce Americans consumption of soda and other sugar-loaded beverages from 10 cans per week to just 3 by the year 2020.  

 ”We’re concerned about sugary drinks because they’re the only foods or beverages that have been directly linked to obesity,” explained Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI on a press call yesterday. 

CSPI, in partnership with the American Heart Association and more than 100 other organizations, is calling on schools, hospitals, health departments, private employers and any other interested groups to reduce the availability of sugary beverages on their premises and to educate members about the negative health consequences of these drinks.  

“Soft drinks along with fruit drinks, energy drinks, and sports drinks account for 46 percent of Americans’ added sugars consumption,” said Dr. Rachel Johnson, vice chair of the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee. 

Research shows that consuming an excess of added sugars can lead to insulin resistance, hypertension, dyslipidemia and Type II Diabetes in addition to obesity, Johnson says. 

But overdosing on added sugars is hard to avoid. For women, the recommended dose of added sugar is 100 calories per day; for men it’s 150 calories. However, the average can of soda contains 130 calories, more than a woman’s daily allotment and 20 calories shy of the dose for men. 

It’s not just the content of these beverages that makes them a threat, says Jacobson. Their ubiquitous nature in American society also contributes to their danger.  

“With soft drinks in gas stations, museums, vending machines, they really are almost everywhere,” he says. “And you combine that with massive, sophisticated advertising and it’s those several factors that have turned sugary drinks from an occasional treat into the largest single source of calories in the American diet.” 

And unlike with fatty foods such as French fries or bacon, humans don’t have an automatic “that’s enough” reaction when they’ve consumed too much of a sugary drink.

“Increasing research indicates that the calories from beverages are more conducive to weight gain than calories from solid foods,” explains Jacobson.

 

The American Beverage Association (ABA) responded to CSPI’s new initiative by saying that the sugary drink statistics cited in its “Life’s Sweeter” campaign are false.

 

“According to an analysis of federal government data presented to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Committee, all sugar-sweetened beverages (soft drinks, juice drinks, sports drinks, flavored waters, etc.) account for just 7 percent of the calories in the average American’s diet,” reported ABA in a statement yesterday.

 

The Association also noted that a report from Emory University showed that consumption of sugary beverages decreased by almost 25 bercent between 1999 and 2008. 

Adding to concerns about sweetened beverage intake, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) released Monday found that 1/4 of Americans consume at least 200 calories a day from these types of drinks. And for 5 percent of the population, that number is an even greater 560 calories or more per day.

CSPI offers a series of recommendations for how groups that join the movement can achieve a reduction in the consumption of sugary beverages. These include:

- Educating group members on the negative consequences of these drinks

- Removing soft drinks from vending machines

- Not allowing soft drinks on the property

- Charging higher prices for soft drinks 

- Supporting public health policies to reduce consumption of sugary drinks

On the home front, experts recommend that parents who want to encourage their children to choose low-sugar options set an example by drinking these options themselves.

“If the preferred choice at home is water with meals, or unsweetened tea or other things that don’t contribute to overweight and obesity, that will be picked up,” says 

Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of Public Health and Health Officer for the LA County Department of Health. “Just like we learned with tobacco, if parents smoke kids are more likely to smoke.”

Participating organizations see the “Life’s Sweeter” movement as a logical next step after the anti-smoking campaign, in that in could have a similar, significant impact on reversing a major negative public health trend. 

“Not since the anti-tobacco campaign has there been a product so worthy of a national health campaign,” said Jacobson. 

The effort to curb soft drink consumption is not a new one, and has already been initiated in many major cities across the country.

Ad campaigns in New York City, Philidelphia and Seattle publicize the sugar content of soft drinks. In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino has banned sugar-sweetened drinks from vending machines and concession stands. These beverages are also prohibited in vending machines in San Antonio and San Francisco. 

“We’re not starting from scratch,” says Jacobson, “but we’re building on a growing momentum.”

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