When Michael Bloomberg, then the mayor of New York City, banned large-sized sugary drinks, he was met with derision, resentment, and eye rolling.
The national media also poked fun at the liberal fortress of Berkeley, California, when it imposed a soda tax in late 2014.
But science is rescuing Bloomberg and Berkeley’s image.
A study published this week in Circulation found that sugar-sweetened beverages likely caused 184,000 deaths worldwide in 2010.
The study was led by Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, Dr.P.H., the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.
It calculated how many sugary drinks people in different countries consumed based on health behavior surveys. It then calculated the number of deaths the consumption caused based on a growing body of evidence that links added sugar to type 2 diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
“Sugar added to processed foods and beverages is one of the most unhealthy ingredients in our food supply,” said Lawrence Gostin, J.D., the faculty director of Georgetown University’s O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. “At the very least, it adds empty calories, has no nutritional value, and is strongly associated with obesity.”
Among the most populous countries, Mexico had the highest death rate from sugar-sweetened beverages, with approximately 405 deaths per million adults. The United States ranked second with approximately 125 deaths.
By that count, 25,000 Americans died from soda consumption in 2010, three-quarters as many as died in car crashes, according to government data.
The findings support moves in Mexico and in several U.S. cities to use sin taxes and warning labels to move consumers away from soda, sports drinks, and sweetened teas and fruit juices.
Mexico imposed a sin tax on soda in early 2014. Berkeley did so later that year. Earlier this month, neighboring San Francisco voted to require soda advertising to carry a health warning.
The study suggests that taxes are a logical way to combat the high soda consumption in Latin America.
“The low cost of sugar-sweetened beverages, lax regulation of advertising, and poor access to clean drinking water in some Latin American and Caribbean countries” make them “natural targets for policy-driven interventions,” the report says.
Soda in the Maelstrom
Sugary beverages have become the public policy focus of a growing body of nutritional science that suggests that added sugar in processed foods can cause diabetes, fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, and diet-related cancers.
Products with added sugar contain more sugar by weight than natural foods, meaning that consumers can get more sugar more quickly than they otherwise would. That speed makes it harder for the body to effectively process the sugar into energy.
Added sugar also comes in the form of sucrose, which is a mix of glucose and the more harmful sugar fructose. The liver has to work harder to process fructose.
While fruit also contains fructose, most research suggests that the fiber, vitamins, and phytonutrients make it a healthful food.
Soda has become the main whipping boy for growing concerns about sugar because it has no nutritional value. Because consumers don’t need it, they’re not hurt when its price goes up.
“This is not complicated. There are no health benefits from sugar-sweetened beverages, and the potential impact of reducing consumption is saving tens of thousands of deaths each year,” study author Mozaffarian said in a statement.
Gostin says we are likely to see more taxes and warnings on soda in coming years.
“Bloomberg was clearly right, not only about sugar but also about portion sizes. Both are linked to obesity,” he said. “Whether the public has caught up is not yet known.”