Soft Drinks and Energy Drinks: Too Sweet for Your Own Good

Harvard researchers say our sweet tooth is making us fat and want beverage makers to help change that.

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Sugary soft drinks and energy drinks are taking it on the chin these days. First, two public-health experts floated the idea of a specific tax on sodas and energy drinks, and now, two other researchers are saying the drinks contribute to obesity and need an extreme makeover.

Walter Willett, who chairs the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, argues that there is a "direct causal link" between sugar-sweetened soft drinks and energy drinks and obesity, which is in turn linked to heart disease, some types of cancer, arthritis, and type 2 diabetes. So he and a colleague, Lilian Cheung, a lecturer in the nutrition department, are suggesting that we all start focusing on drinks with a far lower sugar and calorie content: things like water, tea, seltzer with a splash of juice, and coffee with one lump of sugar. They call on beverage makers to create reduced-calorie beverages with no more than 1 gram of sugar per ounce, without using noncaloric sweeteners like aspartame and stevia.

[See why VitaminWater is a poster child for the importance of reading food and drink labels.]

That kind of beverage would have about 3 teaspoons of sugar per 12 ounces and about 50 calories. Look at Harvard's chart to see how soft drinks, juices, and sports drinks stack up next to that standard—the worst offender, cranberry juice cocktail, has 200 calories and 12 teaspoons of sugar in a 12-ounce serving. (No word yet on how the beverage industry trade group has received this suggestion, but I will write a post if it does respond.)

[Here's the skinny on caloric sweeteners like agave and corn syrup.]

Why the fuss over sugary beverages rather than, say, candy bars? Willett and Cheung say that these drinks are the largest source of added sugar in the diet of young Americans, with teen boys drinking more than a quart per day. In addition, other researchers, such as Barry Popkin, have suggested that liquid calories don't prompt our bodies to feel full the way calories in solid form do. The Harvard folks say we need to retrain our bodies away from intense sweetness, which is why their hypothesized beverages don't include low-calorie sweeteners like stevia, either. "When adults get conditioned to everything being sweet, it's hard to appreciate the gentle sweetness of a carrot or an apple," says Willett. That means using even low-calorie sweeteners may lead to weight gain, he says. (Or it may not: A study published last year suggesting low-calorie sweeteners led to overeating was done in rats, not people.)

As I've written before, whether or not you buy the idea that sugary soft drinks and energy drinks are any worse than sugar in solid form, cutting them out may be an easy way to lose weight. Harvard suggests alternatives including low-sodium miso soup, infused waters, and homemade fresh fruit coolers. If you're not willing to give up your soda habit and are trying to lose weight, at least be aware of the calories and sugar the drinks are adding to your diet, and make up for that by paring back elsewhere.