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Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010 04:12 pm

Is soda a sin?


Is drinking soda a sin? More to the point: Is soda a sin in the same league as tobacco and alcohol, two things that are highly taxed specifically because they’re deemed sinful?

In light of current health statistics, many public health experts are saying that soda should indeed be considered a sin. Excessive consumption of soda has been linked to the escalating rise in the incidence of childhood obesity, as well as what used to be known as “adult onset” diabetes. That term isn’t even considered accurate today, because an increasing number of children suffer from it.

There are many reasons for the high levels of American obesity, especially in children. Soda is just one of them. But it’s an important factor – perhaps the most important: experts say that beverages containing sugar are the number one source of calories in the American diet. Government surveys indicate that accounts for seven percent of the average person’s total calories. In children and teenagers, it’s much more: ranging from 10-14 percent. Totally empty calories.

An increasing amount of attention is being paid to the problem by public health officials, professionals and the government. Many schools have already eliminated sugared drinks – a change from the days when schools were courted by soft drink companies with money for programs or supplies. This month, the Obama administration announced plans to ban candy and sugar-sweetened beverages from all schools, launching a campaign that will be led by First Lady Michelle Obama.

The attention is good, but it’s taken too long. As soda became ever cheaper with the development of high-fructose corn syrup, and mega soft-drink corporations launched a marketing tsunami for their products, drinking soda throughout the day became habitual for many Americans. Perhaps not an addiction, like tobacco or alcohol, but definitely a habit. And it’s much more difficult to break a habit than to never start one. In 2000 The American Dental Association Journal reported that “Americans drank more than 53 gallons of soft drinks per person. This surpassed all other beverages, including milk, beer, coffee and water. It is clear that soft drinks have displaced nutritious beverages and foods from the diet.”

Setting aside problematic issues of caffeine and artificial sweeteners, should the consumption of sugar-free soft drinks be encouraged? That may impact obesity levels, but drinking soda routinely creates another health problem that rarely gets mentioned.

Except by dentists like my husband, Peter. For years he’s been warning his patients, our kids, and pretty much anyone who’ll listen about the dangers of excessive soft-drink consumption. When he first started, the response was mostly a lot of yawning. No one seemed to care much. School districts were getting badly needed money (in some situations amounting to millions of dollars) by signing exclusive contracts with major soft-drink corporations that justified their marketing campaigns by saying that fluid consumption is a good thing. Some school administrators encouraged teachers to allow students to bring soft drinks into classrooms to meet sales targets. There was even a report of a student being suspended for wearing a Coke t-shirt on Pepsi Appreciation Day. The marketing onslaught wasn’t just directed to children, either; and many adults had begun to consume soft drinks throughout the day instead of other beverages.

It drove Peter to a frenzy of frustration. I sometimes thought I’d have to physically restrain him from exploding whenever he saw the cola logo on the signboard in front of our kids’ school. He and his colleagues were beginning to see evidence of the soft-drink industry’s successful marketing campaign in their dental chairs. They even gave it a name: “Mountain Dew mouth.” Why Mountain Dew? Because it has exceptionally high levels of acid. And from a dental standpoint, the acid creates as much or even more of a problem as the sugar.

The reason sugar is bad for teeth is that it’s eagerly consumed by naturally occurring bacteria. They rapidly multiply, producing acidic waste products (a.k.a. bacterial poop) that, over time, can eat through tooth enamel and cause decay. The longer sugar stays in the mouth, the more acid is produced.

Acid levels in soft drinks are astonishingly high. Many of the most popular have acidity levels only slightly lower than that of battery acid. And many noncarbonated soft drinks are just as sugar-laden and acidic as the fizzy stuff: sports beverages, “fruit” drinks containing little or no fruit, mixes such as Kool-Aid and lemonade. Sugar and acid deliver a double whammy, but sugar-free versions still have enough acid to cause problems.

Children and adolescents are the most vulnerable to Mountain Dew mouth because their tooth enamel is more porous than that of mature adults. And adolescents have the highest rates of soft-drink consumption. Even adults’ harder enamel, however, can be damaged by a constant bath of soft-drink acid.

That’s the real issue. No one — not even Peter — thinks that an occasional soft drink is harmful, either for the calories or the acid. It’s the constant sipping throughout the day that’s the culprit.

 “There’s nothing that upsets me more than seeing a teenager walk into my office with a 64-ounce soda cup,” says Peter. “I just know that when I look into that mouth, I’ll see those chalky spots where the acid has begun penetrating the enamel. The worst was an 18-year-old. I’ve been her dentist for her entire life. When she left for college, she was totally decay-free. A year later she was in my office with 14 cavities! Unless her soft-drink habit changes, those teeth are going to require periodic refilling because the enamel around them will crumble. She may even end up needing extractions and dentures or implants.”

One reason soft drinks have succeeded in replacing other, more nutritious beverages is their low cost. Recently a woman ahead of me in the grocery checkout lane had her cart piled to the top with 2-liter soda bottles. “It’s such a deal,” she said happily to the cashier, “10 for $10!” Serving sizes have increased dramatically: Those cute 6.5-ounce Coke bottles of earlier decades have given way to ever larger containers, some as big as a human head.

Inexpensive high-fructose corn syrup has allowed soft-drink manufacturers to keep costs low and profits high. Ironically, USDA subsidies are the main factor in making high-fructose corn syrup so cheap. That’s right: the same government agency that’s telling us to limit our intake of refined sugars is facilitating their production.

Some government and health officials have begun proposing that special taxes be levied on soda, much in the same way that tobacco and alcohol are taxed – as a “sin tax.” Advocates say that such taxes would not only decrease soda consumption, but provide a means for sorely needed revenue. A Feb. 14 article in the New York Times reports that the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that a three-cent tax on 12 oz. sodas with sugar would bring in $51.6 billion in a decade.

“What you want,” says Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, “is to reverse the fact that healthy food is too expensive and unhealthy food is too cheap, and the soda tax is a start. Unless food marketing changes, it’s hard to believe that anything else can work.” Not surprisingly, the soft drink industry opposes it.

Brownell believes a soda tax could significantly decrease annual consumption and wants the revenues used to subsidize fruits and vegetables, and fund obesity prevention programs. Such soda taxes are already in place in a number of states and cities (including Chicago) and more are being introduced.

Although I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the “Big Brother” aspect of a soda “sin” tax, the potential benefits are clear. In an ideal (and unlikely) world, people would limit their childrens’ and their own soft drink consumption voluntarily. And perhaps a first step could be to re-evaluate the federal subsidy programs that helped created the problem in the first place.

Contact Julianne Glatz at

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