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The War on Soda

Fri, 03/25/2011 - 12:50pm
LINDSEY COBLENTZ, Associate Editor, Food Manufacturing

By LINDSEY COBLENTZ, Associate Editor, Food Manufacturing

Lindsay-CoblentzOver the last couple months, a flood of beverage studies have been released, none of which have cast the soda industry in a very favorable light. It’s not news that constantly downing carbonated, sugary and caffeinated drinks is not conducive to a healthy diet, but lately research seems to be taking aim at soda from all sides, from diet drinks to the caramel coloring that gives cola its signature hue.

One study followed 2,500 New Yorkers over 40, tracking their health for nearly 10 years. There were 116 daily diet soda drinkers who participated in the study, and 901 participants who stated they never drank soda. Over the course of the research, there were 559 strokes or heart attacks, with 338 of those being fatal. What researchers concluded was that the daily diet soda drinkers had a 61 percent higher chance of a vascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke, than those who never drank diet soda.

And diet drinks aren’t the only beverage sector feeling the heat. Sugary drinks have long been associated with obesity and diabetes, but recently another ailment was added to the list: high blood pressure. The American Heart Association reported a study that analyzed 2,696 middle-aged participants and found that, for every extra sugary drink consumed per day, participants on average had significantly higher blood pressure, even after taking differences in body mass into account.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has waged war on soda by petitioning the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of caramel coloring, which provides the brown tint for cola and other beverages. The consumer advocate group argues that caramel coloring in and of itself is deceptive to shoppers, who might envision the additive is created simply by “melting sugar in a saucepan.”

In fact, according to CSPI, caramel coloring is made through a series of chemical reactions most likely involving ammonia and sulfites. CSPI argues that government-sponsored studies indicate that caramel coloring made through these chemical processes causes various forms of cancer in lab rats, which could indicate a cancer risk in humans.

This flood of bad publicity is causing a wave of consumer doubt that could spell bad news for the beverage industry. But how accurate are the results of these studies? According to several researchers, including ABC correspondent Dr. Richard Besser, some of the evidence collected in these studies doesn’t hold much weight. He calls the diet soda research a “bad study,” adding, “I don’t think people should change behavior based on this study.”

The American Beverage Association agrees. Dr. Maureen Storey, the organization’s senior vice president of science policy, says the diet soda study does not prove a definitive link between the beverage and stroke, especially because the researchers “failed to control for two important variables — family history of stroke and weight gain — in their analysis.”

Storey also expressed concern with the research regarding sugar-sweetened beverages, indicating that the level of blood pressure changes mentioned in the study were scientifically insignificant. Other foods consumed by the participants were also not taken into account, like sodium and potassium, she said. As for the caramel coloring dispute, Storey says, “No health regulatory agency … has said that [caramel coloring] is a human carcinogen.”

Regardless of whether or not these are “bad studies,” it is likely consumers will remain concerned about the safety of soda until a better study comes along that disproves these results. Another problem for consumers in this case is that it is often difficult to find a happy medium between the statements of consumer advocates and industry representatives. Regardless of which side may be “more correct,” I believe it is clear more research should be done. Further research conducted with larger samples and more stringent controls will produce more accurate results, and allow both consumers and the industry to make more accurate decisions.

What do you think about these studies? Are the results conclusive, or should more research be done? Let me know at lindsey.coblentz@advantagemedia.com.

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