Dairy Industry Tries to Scare the Fizz Out of Soda Sales

The milk industry is really steamed. A new scientific study debunked a major theme of the dairy industry's scare campaign against soft drinks. The study reported that carbonated beverages don't cause calcium loss that can weaken the bones of people who consume soft drinks.

A self-serving study funded by Coke and Pepsi?  Hardly. The study was funded by the dairy industry itself.

Dairy promoters went into a dizzying spin to ignore the facts and push some preposterous claims.  The National Dairy Council, the trade association for the dairy industry, issued a news release titled, "Carbonated beverages are taking a toll on women's health; New study points to soft drinks as culprit of calcium-poor diets, weak bones."

But if you read the release and the study itself, you see that the only downside researchers could find to soft drink consumption was that a person drinking lots of soft drinks may wind up drinking less milk. 

In fact, osteoporosis researcher and study author Robert P. Heaney at Creighton University in Nebraska told The Washington Post, "My message to consumers is: If you are drinking colas, fine, just be sure that you get some calcium-rich foods during the day. Don't let the current puritan streak stop you from having a soft drink."

That's just common sense no one advocates drinking soft drinks and only soft drinks, or abstaining from calcium.  But dairy promoters apparently feel you endanger your health every time you drink water, juice or a soft drink because you should be drinking milk and milk alone.

The scientists at the Creighton University Osteoporosis Research Center conducted an experiment involving 20 40-year-old women who were given four carbonated beverages to drink (two with caffeine and two without), water and milk. The researchers measured the level of calcium in urine samples from the women.

A slight increase in urinary calcium occurred after the women consumed the two caffeine-containing beverages about the same level that would be expected from caffeine alone.

But because this caffeine effect is known to be compensated for by reduced urinary calcium hours later, the researchers concluded that "the net effect of carbonated beverage constituents on calcium economy is negligible."

The researchers conducted their tests under highly controlled conditions the women consumed precise amounts of the beverages, had strict dietary regiments and provided scheduled urine samples in the laboratory.

These controlled conditions contrast greatly with the relatively uncontrolled conditions of the earlier studies that served as the basis for the dairy industry's allegations against soft drinks. The earlier studies didn't involve laboratory testing, but instead relied on unverified questionnaire data and statistical analysis.

In a June 2000 study admittedly inspired by a letter from the food police at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Harvard researcher Grace Wyshak asked 460 high school girls to complete questionnaires about their soft drink consumption and history of bone fractures. 

Wyshak didn't check the teenagers' responses for reliability. Nevertheless, she claimed a statistical link between cola consumption and bone fractures and urged action to "improve" the diets and health of children.

Not only did Wyshak admit to having no scientific explanation for how cola consumption could possibly increase the risk of bone fractures, her statistical result was flaky. The margin of error was about 250 percent greater than the reported increase in risk.

Both Wyshak and the dairy industry tacitly acknowledge their claims are unsubstantiated about soft drinks depleting calcium from bones. That's why they've come up with the claim that soft drink consumption increases bone loss by displacing milk from the diet. But even this claim doesn't stand up to available data.

Michigan State University researchers reported in May 2000 at the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Nutrition Summit that soft drinks have not replaced milk in the diets of children aged 1-19. The researchers reported that over the last 10 years:

 Among children ages 1-5, milk consumption significantly increased and soft drink  consumption significantly decreased;

Among children ages 6-9, milk and soft drink consumption remained steady;

Among children ages 10-19, milk consumption remained steady while soft drink consumption increased.

Similar results have also been reported by Georgetown University researchers.

Why is the dairy industry trying to sabotage the public's taste for soft drinks? It's worried  about the explosion of alternative beverages, especially soft drinks.

The junk science-fueled scare is just good ol' fashioned cutthroat business. Why compete
when you can milk the public's susceptibility to health scares?

Steven Milloy is the publisher of  JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of the upcoming book Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).