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Soda, which is loaded with sugar primarily in the form of high fructose corn syrup, is a leading contributor to the rising rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases facing Americans.
So when I say that drinking a can of soda is just as bad for you as smoking a cigarette (and maybe even worse), it is not an exaggeration.
Drinking soda is in many ways worse for you than smoking, and it is only because of massive marketing campaigns from the industry that these sugary beverages are deemed acceptable for our most vulnerable members of society – our kids.
In the 21st century, there would indeed be an uproar if tobacco companies attempted to target our kids, but the soda companies do it everyday.
It’s time to wake up and face the facts: the soda industry is out for your children, and the message they send is every bit as damaging (and manipulative) as the one spewed by Big Tobacco.
Striking Similarities Between the Soda Industry and Big Tobacco
If I asked you to quickly recall a commercial or slogan from leading soda companies, like Coca-Cola or Pepsi, could you do it?
Chances are you’d have no trouble recalling the friendly polar bear commercials or “the real thing” logo, and if you asked your kids, they’d probably come up with a few too.
This is just the tip of the iceberg for how beverage big-wigs have gotten their products firmly embedded into the homes of millions of Americans and others worldwide. Coca-Cola, for instance, spends close to $3 billion a year on advertising. With that amount of money, it’s no wonder the company has managed to hold on to its wholesome reputation.
They, and other beverage giants, are also in the habit of forming strategic alliances with health organizations that make it appear as though they are looking out for your health, which is about as laughable as Big Tobacco sponsoring a marathon. And like Big Tobacco, they also create front groups to fight anti-soda legislation and science.
For instance, as TIME Magazine reported:
- The American Beverage Association, which represents Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other soft drink producers, has attacked suggestions to tax soda as “discriminatory.” Their organization is touted as a “neutral forum,” but in reality is devoted to discrediting negative press against soft drinks. For instance, in relation to obesity, ABA states, “All of our industry’s beverages can be enjoyed as part of a balanced lifestlye [sic].”
- The soda industry has created the front group Americans Against Food Taxes, which runs anti-tax campaigns. As Kelly Brownell wrote in TIME:
“The name of the group implies a patriotic, grass roots movement, not a highly financed entity initiated and organized by industry.”
- Another industry-created front group, Foundation for a Healthy America, recently donated $10 million to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to research and prevent childhood obesity! Diet Coke has also teamed up with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to raise awareness for women’s heart health programs and was the official “Beverage of Choice” for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
- The soda industry funds research to discredit links between soda drinking and health problems. Brownwell writes:
“The tobacco industry paid scientists who did research disputing links between smoking and lung cancer, the addictive nature of nicotine, and the dangers of second-hand smoke. The soda industry funds scientists who reliably produce research showing no link between SSB [sugar-sweetened beverage] consumption and health. The tobacco industry bought favor from community and national organizations by giving large donations. In an ironic twist, Coca Cola and PepsiCo are corporate sponsors of the American Dietetic Association.”
The Coca-Cola Company Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness (isn’t that name an oxymoron?) even creates continuing education courses for registered dietitians!
The Top Reason to Give Soda the Boot …
Some of you reading this are undoubtedly thinking, how bad could soda really be? From my perspective, there is absolutely NO REASON you or your kids should ever drink soda. If you were stranded in the middle of a desert with no other fluid available, then maybe, but other than that… none, nada, zip, zero. No excuses.
From a health perspective, drinking Coke or any soft drink is a disaster. Just one extra can of soda per day can add as much as 15 pounds to your weight over the course of a single year, not to mention increase your risk of diabetes by 85 percent. The primary reason why soda is so dangerous to your health?
The fructose content of the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) used in many popular soda brands has been sorely underestimated. Around 100 years ago, the average American consumed a mere 15 grams of fructose a day, primarily in the form of fruit. One hundred years later, one fourth of Americans are consuming more than 135 grams per day, largely in the form of soda.
Fructose at 15 grams a day is harmless (unless you suffer from high uric acid levels). However, at nearly 10 times that amount, it becomes a major cause of obesity and nearly all chronic degenerative diseases. Instead of consisting of 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose, many soda brands, including Coke, Pepsi and Sprite, contain as much as 65 percent fructose, nearly 20 percent higher than originally believed.
According to one study, the mean fructose content of all 23 sodas tested was 59 percent — higher than claimed by the industry. When you consider that Americans drink an average of 53 to 57 gallons of soda per year (depending on the source of your statistics), this difference in actual fructose content could make a huge difference in your health.
The Down and Dirty About Fructose
The American Beverage Association and other front groups will try to persuade you that fructose in high fructose corn syrup is no worse for you than sugar, but this is not true. ABA also claims there is “no association between high fructose corn syrup and obesity,” but a long lineup of scientific studies suggest otherwise.
- Dr. David Ludwig of Boston Children’s Hospital did a study of the effects of sugar-sweetened drinks on obesity in children. He found that for each additional serving of a sugar-sweetened drink, both body mass index and odds of obesity increased.
- The Fizzy Drink Study in Christchurch, England explored the effects on obesity when soda machines were removed from schools for one year. In the schools where the machines were removed, obesity stayed constant. In the schools where soda machines remained, obesity rates continued to rise.
- In a 2009 study, 16 volunteers were fed a controlled diet including high levels of fructose. Ten weeks later, the volunteers had produced new fat cells around their hearts, livers and other digestive organs. They also showed signs of food-processing abnormalities linked to diabetes and heart disease. A second group of volunteers who were fed a similar diet, but with glucose replacing fructose, did not have these problems.
Fructose is also a likely culprit behind the millions of U.S. children struggling with non-alcoholic liver disease, which is caused by a build-up of fat within liver cells. Fructose is very hard on your liver, in much the same way as drinking alcohol.
- Liver burden number one: After eating fructose, 100 percent of the metabolic burden rests on your liver—ONLY your liver can break it down. This is much different than consuming glucose, in which your liver has to break down only 20 percent, and the remaining 80 percent is immediately metabolized and used by the rest of the cells in your body.
- Liver burden number two: Fructose is converted into fat that gets stored in your liver and other tissues as body fat. Part of what makes fructose so bad for your health is that it is metabolized to fat in your body far more rapidly than any other sugar. For example, if you eat 120 calories of fructose, 40 calories are stored as fat. But if you eat the same amount of glucose, less than one calorie gets stored as fat. Consuming fructose is essentially consuming fat!
Fructose metabolism is very similar to the way alcohol is metabolized, which has a multitude of toxic metabolites that, if consumed in excess, can lead to non-alcoholic liver disease. For a complete discussion of fructose metabolism, see my comprehensive article about this.
Diet Soda is NOT a Safe Alternative to Regular Soda
If you think you’re better off drinking diet soda, think again. In fact, if I had to choose between the two, I’d take regular soda over diet. Instead of fructose, diet soda contains artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame or sucralose (Splenda). With all the research now available on aspartame and its various ingredients, it’s hard to believe such a chemical would even be allowed into the food supply, but it is, and it’s been silently wreaking havoc with people’s health for the past 30 years.
- Lymphomas, leukemias, and brain cancer
- Neurological symptoms including headaches, depressed and anxious mood, seizures, memory loss, hallucinations, and dizziness
- Visual changes
- Weakness and fatigue
- Joint pain
- Sleep disorders
- Weight gain and diabetes
- Abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
- Rashes and hives
Does Soda Actually Cause Violence?
It’s a well-known fact that poor diet, particularly one high in sugar, exacts a toll on your emotional health.
For example, one recent study published in the journal Psychology Today found a strong link between high sugar consumption and the risk of both depression and schizophrenia. It’s also a well-known fact that chronic inflammation plays a major role in heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer. So consuming excessive amounts of sugary beverages can truly set off an avalanche of negative health events — both mental and physical.
A diet high in sugar, fructose, and sweetened beverages like soda also causes excessive insulin release, which can lead to falling blood sugar levels, or hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia, in turn, causes your brain to secrete glutamate in levels that can cause agitation, depression, anger, anxiety and panic attacks.
One 1985 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that reducing sugar intake had a positive impact on emotions. And another, “Los Angeles Probation Department Diet-Behavior Program: An Empirical Analysis of Six Institutional Settings,” published in 1983, documented the results when juvenile delinquents were given a reduced-sugar diet. They saw a 44 percent reduction in the incidence of antisocial behavior during the subsequent 3 months, after the implementation of the revised diet.
So can drinking soda affect your child’s behavior?
Yes, it can.
A new study further supported this point, and revealed that frequent soft drink consumption was associated with a 9-15% point increase in the probability of engaging in aggressive actions, even after controlling for gender, age, race, body mass index, typical sleep patterns, tobacco use, alcohol use, and having family dinners.
“There was a significant and strong association between soft drinks and violence. There may be a direct cause-and-effect relationship, perhaps due to the sugar or caffeine content of soft drinks, or there may be other factors, unaccounted for in our analyses, that cause both high soft drink consumption and aggression.”
The effect is not a new finding, as in 1979 the now notorious “Twinkie Defense” was used in a murder trial for the first time.
As Discovery News reported:
“In a notorious 1979 San Francisco murder trial, lawyers blamed the killer’s actions on his recent switch from a health-food diet to one filled with Coca-Cola and other junk food. Their argument worked. Instead of a homicide ruling, the defendant was convicted of a lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter. The legal strategy became known as the “Twinkie Defense,” and the precedent raised a number of questions that persist, despite years of research on the subject.”
Processed Food “Rebates” Dominate School Cafeterias
Soda manufacturers are not the only ones scheming for a permanent share of your child’s diet. In an article published on La Vida Locavore, Ed Bruske revealed, possibly for the first time, that manufacturers of sugar-laden processed foods pay “rebates” (AKA “kickbacks”) to food service companies that serve school districts across the United States.
Bruske obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act that revealed more than 100 companies paid rebates to Chartwells, a food service management company hired by D.C. Public Schools. As you might suspect, the “rebates” present a conflict of interest that could prompt Chartwells to order food for your children based on the amount of rebate it will receive, versus the food’s nutritional value.
The end result?
School lunches that contain heavily processed foods like muffins, pizza, tater tots and flavored milk in lieu of fresh produce.
According to Bruske:
“Manufacturers pay rebates based on large volume purchases — literally, cash for placing an order. Rebates are said to be worth billions of dollars to the nation’s food industry, although manufacturers as well as the food service companies who feed millions of the nation’s school children every day — Chartwells, Sodexo and Aramark — treat them as a closely-guarded secret.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that food service companies engaged in “cost reimbursable” contracts with schools credit any rebates they receive to their school clients. For more than a year, attorneys for D.C. Public Schools refused to make public an itemized list of rebates collected by Chartwells, claiming the information constituted “trade secrets.” The schools were overruled by Mayor Vincent Gray’s legal counsel after I filed an administrative appeal.
John Carroll, an assistant New York State attorney general investigating rebating practices there, has said rebates pose “an inherent conflict of interest” in school feeding programs because they favor highly processed industrial foods. In cases where schools pay a food service company a flat rate to provide meals, the companies are not required to disclose the rebates they collect. In those cases, Carroll recently told a U.S. Senate Panel, rebates tend to drive up the cost of food, cheating children out of nutrition they might otherwise have on their lunch trays.
Carroll also described cases where rebates discouraged the use of local farm products in school meals. Produce vendors can’t afford to pay a rebate for local apples. But in at least one case, a produce distributor raised the prices of his goods so that he could pay a rebate to a food service company. A Homeland Security sub-committee in the U.S. Senate is investigating possible rebate fraud in contracts across the entire federal government.”
The top contributors to Chartwell’s rebate dollars included Performance Food Group, which paid more than $400,000 over the last three years, followed by General Mills, Kraft Foods, Country Pure Foods and Jenny-O Turkey. Other companies who made the list include:
- Otis Spunkmeyer
- Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper, 7-Up
- Cargill Meat Solutions
- Campbell’s Foodservice
Raising a Life-Long Healthy Eater
Food and beverage companies spend $2 billion a year promoting unhealthy foods to kids, and while ultimately it’s the parents’ responsibility to feed their children healthy foods, junk food ads make this much more difficult than it should be. As a result, the state of most kids’ diets in the United States is not easy to swallow.
As The Interagency Working Group on Foods Marketed to Children (IWG) reported:
- Nearly 40% of children’s diets come from added sugars and unhealthy fats
- Only 21% of youth age 6-19 eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day
This is a veritable recipe for disease, and is a primary reason why today’s kids are arguably less healthy than many prior generations. Obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure — these are diseases that once appeared only in middle age and beyond, but are now impacting children. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that by 2050, one in three U.S. adults will have diabetes — one of them could be your child if you do not take steps to cancel out the messages junk food marketers are sending, and instead teach them healthy eating habits.
Make no mistake, the advertisers are doing all they can to lure your child in, just as Big Tobacco did generations ago.
So you need first to educate yourself about proper nutrition and the dangers of junk food and processed foods in order to change the food culture of your entire family. To give your child the best start at life, and help instill healthy habits that will last a lifetime, you must lead by example. Children will simply not know which foods are healthy unless you, as a parent, teach it to them first.
My nutrition plan offers a step-by-step guide to feed your family right, and I encourage you to read through it now to learn how to make healthy eating decisions for you and your children.
If you want to get involved on a larger scale, the Prevention Institute’s “We’re Not Buying It” campaign is petitioning President Obama to put voluntary, science-based nutrition guidelines into place for companies that market foods to kids. You can sign this petition now. I also urge you to go a step further and stop supporting the companies that are marketing junk foods and beverages to your children today.
Ideally, you and your family will want to vote with your pocketbook and avoid processed food and sugary sodas while instead choosing unprocessed raw, organic and/or locally grown foods as much as possible. These are the foods your child will thrive on, and it’s important they learn what real, healthy food is right from the get-go.
This way, when they become tweens and teenagers, they may eat junk food here and there at a friend’s house, but they will return to real food as the foundation of their diet — and that habit will continue on with them for a lifetime.