Soda, pop, cola, soft drink—no matter what the preferred name, Americans love these sweet, bubbly beverages.
Pharmacists may have served the first soft drinks in the 1800s, but today, sodas are sold everywhere from restaurants to gyms to school cafeterias—though the American Beverage Association’s (2012) School Beverage Guidelines recommend withdrawing regular (sugared) sodas from schools.
In fact, manufacturers produce 10.4 billion gallons of sodas annually—enough for every American to drink a 12-ounce can each day (Harvard School of Public Health 2012; ABA 2012).
Both regular and diet soda typically contain sweetener, caffeine, carbonated water, a coloring agent such as caramel color, phosphoric acid (a preservative and flavoring agent), citric acid (a citrus flavoring), and sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate (to help prevent the growth of bacteria, yeasts, and molds) (ABA 2012).
The key difference between regular and diet soda is the sugar. Added sugar (sugar that doesn’t occur naturally in food) accounts for almost 16% of the average American’s daily sugar intake—and nearly half of that amount comes from soft drinks (Harvard School of Public Health 2012; Boyles 2011).
On average, a 12-ounce can of regular soda contains the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of table sugar, usually in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. That amounts to about 150 calories, or enough for you to gain 15 pounds if you drank a can every day for a year without cutting other calories (Harvard School of Public Health 2012).
About one-third of U.S. adults (33.8%) are obese, along with 17% of children ages 2–19 (CDC 2011). Some believe regular sodas are responsible for the obesity epidemic (Brownell et al. 2009; Marshall et al. 2003; Harvard School of Public Health 2012; Vartanian, Schwartz, and Brownell 2007). Though many view diet soda as a healthier low- or no-calorie alternative to regular soda, others argue that diet sodas also have contributed to the United States’ obesity epidemic (Swithers and Davidson 2008).
According to a study published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience (Swithers and Davidson 2008), diet sodas interfere with our bodies’ natural calorie counters: Our brains think we are consuming something caloric, but when we don’t process these perceived calories, we go searching for them elsewhere. Others say no such correlation exists (Mattes and Popkin 2008).
Studies also show correlations between regular soft drink consumption and diabetes, elevated blood pressure, cavities, decreased bone density, and kidney damage (Boyles 2011; Brownell et al. 2009; Marshall et al. 2003; Harvard School of Public Health 2012; Vartanian, Schwartz, and Brownell 2007).
Though the health effects of soft drinks are disputed, one can’t deny that healthier options exist. Perhaps the best advice is to enjoy these beverages in moderation or opt for water.
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Sincere thanks to Anna-Lisa Finger, a registered dietitian and personal trainer at the Weight Management Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, for reviewing this column.
American Beverage Association (ABA). 2012. Soft drinks and diet soft drinks. http://bit.ly/wJH5u0
Boyles, S. 2011. Sodas and your health: Risks debated. WebMD. http://bit.ly/ztp7sr
Brownell, K.D., T. Farley, W.C. Willett, B.M. Popkin, F.J. Chaloupka, J.W. Thompson, and D.S. Ludwig. 2009. The public health and economic benefits of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages. The New England Journal of Medicine 361: 1599–1605.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2011. U.S. obesity trends. http://1.usa.gov/Ay46qv
Harvard School of Public Health. 2012. Sugary drinks or diet drinks: What’s the best choice? Harvard University. http://hvrd.me/ym16KN
Marshall, T.A., S.M. Levy, B. Broffitt, J.J. Warren, J.M. Eichenberger-Gilmore, T.L. Burns, and P.J. Stumbo. 2003. Dental caries and beverage consumption in young children. Pediatrics 112 (3): e184–e191.
Mattes, R.D., and B.M. Popkin. 2008. Nonnutritive sweetener consumption in humans: Effects on appetite and food intake and their putative mechanisms. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 89 (1): 1–14.
Swithers, S.E., and T.L. Davidson. 2008. Sweet taste cues and energy dysregulation in rats. A role for sweet taste: Calorie predictive relations in energy regulation by rats. Behavioral Neuroscience 122 (1): 161–173.
Vartanian, L.R., M.B. Schwartz, and K.D. Brownell. 2007. Effects of soft drink consumption on nutrition and health: A systematic review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Public Health 97 (4): 667–675.