Soda Debate

There’s a can of soda in the vending machine down the hall biding its time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

Okay, that’s probably a stretch, but soda and energy drinks are coming under heavy fire, from New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to ban large-sized sodas to a new, cataclysmic statistic that paints soda as a serial killer.

What the debate surrounding sugary drinks lacks is reason and common sense.

180,000 Dead From Soda Each Year?

The American Heart Association (AHA) recently made waves by claiming their research shows that 180,000 deaths each year worldwide are associated with sugary soft drinks. 

Researchers compared deaths from diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer to the amount of soda consumed in a given country. Latin American and Caribbean countries had the most diabetes deaths—38,000—linked to the number of sugar-sweetened beverages the population consumed in 2010.

That link, however, may not be strong enough to support the statement that sugary soft drinks are solely responsible for killing the equivalent of the population of Knoxville, Tenn. each year.

The AHA researchers demonstrated correlation, not causation. They failed to take into account numerous other factors, including a person’s genetic predisposition to disease, exercise habits, stress levels, and other risk factors for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

There’s no reason to defend soda, energy drinks, and other sugary beverages—it’s not like they’re good for you—but soda is being portrayed as the latest Boogeyman threatening global health, while scare tactics do little to slow the epidemic of obesity and chronic disease in Western nations. 

That said, just as you shouldn’t immediately accept the latest health figures without reasonable skepticism, you shouldn’t blindly swallow messages from drink manufacturers either. 

Athletes, Actors, and the Marketing of Sugar

Judging by the commercials, it’s pretty common for someone to slam down a bottle of Mountain Dew, Red Bull, or Monster Energy before performing a stunt so huge they’re transformed into a demigod. Or if they chug a Gatorade, their workout hits awe-insiring levels. 

When it comes to energy drinks, you don’t need extreme sports to increase your heart rate. The AHA also released a new study showing that energy drinks can create temporary irregular heart rhythms and increased blood pressure.

Their study subjects were healthy patients ages 18 to 45 who had just consumed up to three energy drinks. That’s a lot—but not uncommon—for anyone to consume. A younger, healthier body can better handle the effects of a caffeine jolt, but for older patients—especially those with heart problems—the outlook isn’t as bright.   

“People with health concerns or those who are older might have more heart-related side effects from energy drinks,” Sachin A. Shah, Pharm.D., lead author and assistant professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., said in a press release.

So, if you already have a bum heart, don’t "do the Dew."

Because energy drinks and soda have no known health benefits, manufacturers are feeling the heat of studies like this that link their products to health risks. 

This week, Monster Beverage—the largest seller of energy drinks in the U.S.—announced it's drinks will no longer be sold as "nutritional supplements" and will instead be marketed as beverages, according to The New York Times.

The company will now have to disclose the drinks' caffeine levels—140 to 160 milligrams per 16-ounce can—but won’t have to report any injuries or deaths caused by its products.

If that's a needed business strategy, think about what happens to your body when you "unleash the beast."

Your Daily Soda Intake

The AHA and other organizations aren’t targeting marathoners sucking down a cup of Gatorade every few miles. Their real focus is on people who drink multiple sodas every day. 

In reality, the majority of people consuming soda are far from athletes: half of Americans say they drink soda daily, and the majority (90 percent) who drink two or more glasses a day classify themselves as “somewhat overweight” or “about right,” according to Gallup research. (Which, by the way, is self-reported data.) 

The AHA recommends that adults consume no more than 450 calories per week from sugar-sweetened beverages, which translates to just under two 20-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola.

Cutting back on your daily soda intake will have positive health effects, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that banning them in large sizes, like Bloomberg hopes to, will automatically make Americans healthier.

Yes, each soda gives you an extra eight teaspoons of sugar—on average—and those extra calories will pile up if you don’t burn them off. Maybe that’s why soda and energy drink advertisements often feature highly-active athletes—they’re trying to burn off all that sugar.

Still, there's more to preventing diabetes and obesity than just avoiding soda. Also crucial is maintaining a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet, and staying active.  

That’s where common sense comes in.

The Bottom Line

Should you be guzzling down gallons of soda every day? Of course not.

Should you treat a bottle of Coca-Cola like it’s a loaded weapon? No, unless of course it's diet and you’re holding a pack of Mentos in the other hand.