Move over, cigarettes. Trans fats, please make room. The battle to improve Americans’ health is zeroing in on a new target: Pop.
“I believe soda is the next tobacco,” said Barry Popkin, director of the University of North Carolina’s Interdisciplinary Obesity Center and author of “The World is Fat,” published this year. Soda drinkers haven’t achieved pariah status like smokers before them, but proposed sugar taxes and social pressure to be healthy can put a damper on doing the Dew — and even some in the growing ranks of diet pop drinkers are feeling soda shame.
According to Popkin, Americans are consuming up to 300 more calories per day now than they were 25 to 30 years ago, and two-thirds of that increase is from caloric beverages like soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit juice and milk.
While milk has important vitamins and minerals, the sugary beverages “have no health benefits,” Popkin said. And studies show people who drink caloric beverages don’t compensate by cutting out other food, so the calories add up, he said.
An article in the April 30 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine put it bluntly: Sugar-sweetened beverages “may be the single largest driver of the obesity epidemic,” it said.
The article, co-authored by Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, and New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden, makes a case for imposing hefty taxes on sugary drinks to curb consumption. A proposal in New York last year to impose a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugared beverages could be expected to reduce consumption by 13 percent, or about two servings per person per week, according to the article.
A federal tax on sugary beverages is one of many proposals Congress is considering as it debates how to pay for a $1.2 trillion overhaul of the health care system, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that adding a tax of 3 cents per 12-ounce serving of sweetened drink would generate $24 billion over the next four years.
The notion of a soda tax riles some die-hard pop fans.
“Stop taking away the things I enjoy,” said Jaime Groth, 26, as she sipped a ginger ale during lunch recently. Groth was a smoker until cigarettes were taxed out of her reach, and she doesn’t want the same fate to befall her soda habit.
“At some point, you know stuff’s not good for you,” Groth said. “People should be able to make their own decisions.”
Two states — Maine and New York — that tried to impose large soft drink taxes in the past year have not succeeded.
Tracey Halliday, spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association, a trade group representing beverage distributors, said proposed taxes on sugary beverages are “a pure money grab” and unfairly discriminate against one product. She batted away soda’s comparison to tobacco, “a known carcinogen.” “There is clearly no comparison between tobacco and soft drinks,” Halliday said. “People are not buying it.”
Health-conscious consumers are, however, increasingly turning away from regular soft drinks in favor of diet alternatives.
The regular soft drink market lost 15.6 million adult drinkers from 2003 to 2008, while the diet soda market gained 7.8 million drinkers, according to Mintel, a Chicago-based market research firm. People also are increasingly drinking bottled water, energy drinks and sports drinks, Mintel found.
Weight maintenance and concern about the health risks of high fructose corn syrup were the biggest reasons cited for moving away from pop, and Mintel does not expect much growth in artificially sweetened beverages as people steer clear of chemicals. Rather, people will be willing to pay more for naturally sweetened beverages, Mintel predicts.
“I don’t trust the aspartame in diet (soft drinks) or the sugariness of regular soda,” said Jane Boateng, 26, of Gage Park.
Some diet pop drinkers feel pressure to kick the fizzy stuff altogether.
Lacey Brenly admits to a Diet Coke addiction that dates back to college, when, she claims, she switched from regular pop to diet and lost 10 pounds.
Hooked on the bubbles, Brenly, 26, said she drinks at least three Diet Cokes a day, which draws tsk-tsks from some of her friends.
“I have a lot of friends who are health nuts — who do yoga, shop at Whole Foods — and I get a little flack from them for my Diet Coke consumption,” Brenly said. Brenly, a smoker, said some friends try to convert her to a smoke-free, pop-free lifestyle — but both are tough habits to break. When she attempted a two-week health kick, “the first thing to go was the all-water pledge,” she said.
“I always feel pretty guilty about it, like when people started recycling,” Brenly said. “I feel guilty that I’m not trying to be healthier.”
Diet sweeteners have come under fire for conditioning people to want more sweets, and some have been linked to cancer, but Popkin said there has been no established literature proving that diet sweeteners are harmful or cause weight gain. Researchers with the Framingham Heart Study published a study two years ago that found people who drink one or more soda per day — diet or regular — are nearly 50 percent more likely than non-soda drinkers to develop risk factors for heart disease, but the study author said that could be because people who drink soda also tend to eat more and exercise less.
To Popkin, sugary drinks are the known culprit, leading to weight gain and increasing the risk for diabetes. Drinking one extra 12-ounce can of regular soda a day, at 140 calories, can cause you to gain 13 pounds in a year, he said.
Monica Flores has struggled to nix regular pop from her diet. Flores, 36, said she gave up Coke and “all brown pops” for Lent this year, and three weeks in she had painful headaches. As soon as Lent was over, she went back to drinking soda.
Flores’ friend Michele Campbell said she has no intention of giving up regular soft drinks. Campbell, 39, said she knows the sugary drinks aren’t healthy, but she’s heard plenty of warnings about diet drinks too.
“If I’m going to die of something,” Campbell said, “I’m going to die of sugar.”
(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune.
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