Soft drinks are under the hammer. Around the world they are being taxed and regulated. Here in New Zealand we have seen the launch of the FIZZ campaign to knock soft drink consumption for six. Coca Cola recognises the threat, and has launched a global campaign to show they have an interest in our health and want to be part of the solution to the obesity epidemic by providing information, low calorie versions and smaller portions sizes. Why is everyone getting in such a fizz about soft drinks?
Coke wants us to believe that a calorie is a calorie, so Coke can be part of an otherwise balanced diet. And on a simple level they are right. But dig a little deeper and there are two serious flaws with this argument. The calories in soft drink don’t fill us up, they rot our teeth, and don’t come with any nutrients either. This is why in the war on obesity, soft drinks have been singled out by many nutritionists as a particularly pernicious problem.
Our bodies don’t readily register the energy in soft drinks, so we can go on drinking them indefinitely without ever recognising that we’ve had enough. But of course our dopamine hormone gets off on salt, sugar and fat so our sweet tooth encourages us to keep drinking. With no protein and without any chewing involved, our bodies seem to register soft drinks as water, in other words they don’t fill us up. Yet our body still has to deal with the flood of fuel unleashed when the sugar hits our stomach and is absorbed into the bloodstream. Our bodies are clever, they generate hormones (leptin) that tell us when we have eaten enough, this is how we ‘naturally’ regulate our weight. If we don’t readily register the manufactured or fake food that is soft drinks, then our ‘sweet tooth’ will lead us to consume more than we need and then we’ll pack on the weight.
Most people know that the sugar and acid in soft drink rots our teeth. We say most people because we have heard anecdotes of some Kiwi kids being sent to bed nursing a bottle of fizzy drink. You guessed it, they ended up at the dental clinic.
The final problem with soft drinks – which is shared by many processed fake foods – is that they are nutrient poor. This is a problem because we actually need nutrients in our food to process the energy. It is a bit like a car engine – sure we need petrol as fuel (and the sugar in soft drinks are high octane in that respect) but we also need oil and water to keep our engine running. Soft drinks (and other processed fake food) are stripped of nutrients so that they can last on the shelf for ages, then packed full of energy so they have flavour. Eating fake food and drinking soft drink is like filling your car with petrol but never checking the oil and water that regulate the combustion process. In motoring terms you are headed for a blown engine, which is why the coroner fingered Coke as being instrumental in the recent death of an Invercargill woman that drank 6-10 litres per day. It could have been any soft drink, drinking that much is a death sentence.
In short, it is sophistry to say soft drinks have a place in a balanced diet. It is more a case of how much nutritionally pointless junk we can handle in our diet. No amount of soft drink is ‘good for you’ the only question is how much you can throw at your poor body before it shows visible signs of wear and tear.
Consumption of fizzy drinks is not quite at American proportions (where one portion of soda can be up to 1.5 litres), but our young people are having a good go at catching up. The latest Nutrition Survey suggests that over half of men under 30 years drink soft drinks three or more times per week. In fact the average young male (aged 15-18) guzzles 7.5kg of sugar each year in soft drinks. For the top 10% it is over 13kg.
And don’t think for a moment that the alternatives down the drinks aisle are any better. Flavoured water, sports drinks, juices, energy drinks are all just as bad. A 750ml bottle of Powerade has as much energy as a 600ml Coke. Both of these will pretty much cancel the benefits of an hour of walking. The Ministry of Health last year issued a warning to keep kids under 18 off energy drinks – the larger portion sizes of the (Coke owned) Mother brand contain more caffeine than young people are supposed to have in a day. But perhaps the most surprising is the amount of sugar in juices – Ribena is the most sugary drink on the shelves with 3.5 teaspoons of sugar in each 100ml. Of course juices have some nutrients in them – more than soft drinks – but enough to justify the sugar? You are way better off eating the fruit whole.
The most common response to this problem overseas has been to tax soft drinks. The early signs are that this approach works, but the devil is in the detail. There seem to be a couple of common mistakes that legislators make: the tax rates (between 1-8%) are too low for consumers to really notice, and where they do notice, they often shift their consumption to other sweet things that aren’t being taxed, like juice. As we saw above, Ribena has even more sugar than soft drinks. The end result can therefore be no victory in the war on obesity. Other experimental studies have shown that with a higher tax rate, it is possible to have a large effect on consumption, but that a more comprehensive tax is needed to avoid people simply switching what they drink to other things.[i] The long term game is to integrate food taxes with food labels that clearly assign a food a health rating. That will stop people switching from one bad drink (or food) to another.
Of course the concern is that we push people into the arms of the sugar substitutes, like aspartame. Many have questioned the health impacts of using aspartame as a sugar replacement. Some argue that the sweetness doesn’t quell appetite – in fact it stimulates people to eat more elsewhere. Others point to how it breaks down into poisons as a reason to be cautious in its use. The use of aspartame, like so many other parts of our drug and food system, is a huge experiment, the results of which will only become clear with time. What we do know from the evidence is that we face a far bigger challenge at the moment with sugary soft drinks.
In short, Coke executives are right to be worried; the regulatory vultures are circling and their half-hearted attempt at self-regulation is unlikely to keep them at bay for long. They can mutter all they like about providing low calorie alternatives and smaller serving sizes. However, until these smaller and sugar free products are cheaper than their large, sugary alternatives, they will remain the preserve of the rich and educated. In fact at the moment there is a considerable premium on smaller serving sizes. In a supermarket the other day it was cheaper to buy two 1.5 litre bottles of Coke than it was to buy a single 600ml bottle. This sort of pricing is hardly going to encourage people to make a healthy choice. Coke need to sort out their pricing, or wait until a tax does it for them.
[i] Mytton, O.T. et al. Taxing Unhealthy Food and Drinks to Improve Health. BMJ 2012;344:e2931 doi 10.1136/bmj.e2931 (published 15 May 2012)