The food police filed a petition this week with the federal government to require that regular (non-diet) soft drinks carry health warning labels. But scientific data, including a new study published this week, expose such soda scaremongering for what it is — junk science-fueled nanny-ism.
Anti-fun food activists at the self-proclaimed “Center for Science in the Public Interest” called on the Food and Drug Administration to require a series of rotating health notices on containers of most non-diet soft drinks.
Warnings suggested by CSPI include: “The U.S. Government recommends that you drink less (non-diet) soda to help prevent weight gain, tooth decay and other health problems”; “To help protect your waistline and your teeth, consider drinking diet sodas or water”; “Drinking soft drinks instead of milk or calcium-fortified beverages may increase your risk of brittle bones (osteoporosis)”; and “This drink contains caffeine, which is a mildly addictive stimulant drug. Not appropriate for children.”
Ironically, the day after the CSPI news conference calling for the warning labels, a study published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet undercut CSPI’s claims concerning weight gain.
Researchers studied the role of physical activity in relation to changes in bodyweight in about 2,300 adolescent girls for 10 years from ages 9-19 and reported that exercise, rather than eating, was key.
“These results suggest that habitual activity plays an important role in weight gain, with no parallel evidence that energy intake had a similar role,” concluded the researchers.
This new study is consistent with what scientists know about sugar intake and weight. “There is no clear and consistent association between increased intake of added sugars and [weight],” stated a 2002 report from the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine titled, “Dietary Reference Intakes on Macronutrients.”
And let’s not forget about the more recent 15,000-child study spotlighted last fall in this column in which Harvard University researchers concluded that, “although snack foods may have low nutritional value, they were not an important independent determinant of weight gain among children and adolescents.”
While consumption of dietary sugars has been linked with dental caries (search), it’s not a simple relationship that merits a special warning label on soft drinks.
“Many factors in addition to sugars affect the caries process, including the form of food or fluid, the duration of the exposure, nutrient composition, sequence of eating, salivary flow, presence of buffers, and oral hygiene,” wrote researchers in a 2003 article entitled “Sugars and Dental Caries” published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Emphasizing the complexity of the issue, the researchers noted, “Since the introduction of fluoride, the incidence of caries worldwide has decreased, despite increases in sugar consumption.”
The researchers also noted a study linking white bread with caries. Will CSPI also demand that consumers be warned about the risk of tooth decay that might be posed by sandwich bread, French bread and pizza?
CSPI’s suggested warning about soft drinks increasing the risk of osteoporosis is also without merit. As discussed in an earlier column, there simply is no evidence that soft drinks are replacing milk in the diet of children and adolescents. That same column spotlighted a CSPI-inspired researcher who previously attempted to link cola consumption with bone fractures in high school girls; but her statistics were weak and she had no credible explanation for how cola consumption could lead to bone fractures.
By the way, while CSPI ostensibly worries about soft drinks replacing milk, it actively campaigns against the consumption of whole milk and 2 percent milk, advocating consumption of only 1 percent milk and skim milk. CSPI accuses the dairy industry of “putting profits ahead of the hearts of American’s school-aged children,” even though the activist group can’t point to a single child whose heart health has been compromised in the slightest by milk.
As to caffeine and children, a 2002 review of the science in Food and Chemical Toxicology concluded, “Overall, the effects of caffeine in children seem to be modest and typically innocuous.”
Of course children should avoid overconsumption of caffeine — that’s just common sense — but they can safely consume the typical amounts found in soft drinks.
CSPI attempted to legitimize its petition by having it endorsed by folks like New York University’s Marion Nestle, Harvard School of Public Health’s Walter Willett, and Harvard Medical School’s JoAnn Manson — all individuals well-known to readers of this column as having anti-food industry and anti-soft drink biases. Their goals seem to be the demonization of the food industry and of its products, and to dictate what we eat and drink. Placing scary warning labels on soft drinks would certainly further that twisted agenda.
The bottom line on soft drinks is that, like virtually everything else in life, moderation is the key. Soft drinks can be part of a healthy lifestyle — along with a balanced diet, plenty of exercise, sufficient sleep, good oral hygiene and other common sense lifestyle habits. If consumers need to be waned about anything, it should be CSPI’s alarmist antics.
Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and CSRwatch.com, is adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and is the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).