Can Big Soda’s Statistics Be Trusted?

by Dana Woldow on March 17, 2014

Big Soda likes to say that only 4% of calories in the average American diet come from soda. They said exactly that recently to support their claim that a proposed bill to put a warning label on all sugar-sweetened beverages sold in California would not help lower obesity rates. They will say the same thing when opposing soda taxes proposed for San Francisco and Berkeley. If it is true that the average American is getting only 4% of their calories from sugary drinks, then are we wrong to believe medical researchers who have linked consumption of those beverages to obesity, diabetes, and other diseases?

Hardly. For starters, sodas are just one type of sugary beverage – that 4% doesn’t include the calories from all of those “fruit” drinks containing scant juice but lots of added sugar, and the “sports” drinks, “energy” drinks, lemonade, sweet tea, and sweetened waters folks are chugging in addition to soda. Many of those brands, like Gatorade, Hawaiian Punch, and Minute Maid, are owned by Big Soda companies, but remember, they said only 4% of our calories are coming from soda – not from their other soft drinks.

It’s not just about soda

Research shows that consumption of these non-carbonated soft drinks is rising, and the percentage of calories consumed on average for all sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), even by the beverage industry’s estimate, is far higher than 4%.

What’s more, talking about an “average” diet misrepresents the experience of individuals. If you drink 4 sodas a day and I drink none, our “average” diet is 2 sodas a day, even though neither one of us is consuming 2 daily sodas.

In August 2011, the American Beverage Association stated that “sugar-sweetened beverages account for 7% of calories in the average American diet”. That was in response to a report from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, showing that between 2005-08, consumption of all SSBs contributed on average from 7.4 to 8.5% of calories for children of all races, over 8% of calories for both African American and Hispanic adults, and over 5% for white adults.

Half of Americans drink no SSBs

What the American Beverage Association failed to explain is that the CDC report also found that 50% of Americans ages 2 and older don’t drink any SSBs – at all – on a typical day. This means that the 7-8% of calories in that “average American diet” that Big Soda was talking about is averaged over both the half of the population who indulge in sugary drinks, and the half who don’t.

In other words, the “average” intake is only as low as 7-8% of calories because half the people included have intake of 0%. To determine what percentage of calories the other half, who do drink SSBs, are getting from those drinks, the number must be doubled – to 14-16% of calories.

SSBs have only empty calories

Big Soda is quick to point out that people get most of their calories from food, not beverages. What they don’t mention is that food also provides nutrients, including those essential for good health like vitamins, minerals, proteins, and fiber, whereas sugary drinks provide little but extra empty calories. Simply put, humans can’t get by without food, but they can (and did, for millennia) get by just fine without SSBs.

Sugary drinks, like other minimally nutritious junk food, should be consumed only as an occasional treat, not as a regular part of a healthy diet, because few people can afford to waste their calories on products that don’t help meet their nutritional needs.

Drinking one 20 ounce bottle of Coke, with 240 calories, provides 12% of the daily recommended 2000 calories for a moderately active adult woman, without contributing any essential nutrients. That’s like trying to get by on a monthly income of $2000, while tossing $240 of it into a garbage can.

The American Heart Association says discretionary calories (those left after you’ve met all your daily nutritional needs) should be limited to 100 calories a day for most women, and 150 calories a day for most men. But that’s not advice that most SSB drinkers are following.

How much full-sugar soda are people really drinking? New York University professor Marion Nestle, a leading authority on nutrition and food politics, told me in an e-mail, “The figures I’ve seen say something like 10 oz/day on average, but half drink no soda, so that means 20 oz/day on average for those who do. I’ve also seen figures suggesting that 5% of the population drinks 48 oz or more a day, and that one-fourth the population drinks 16 oz or more. That would mean 20% of the population drinks 16-48 oz a day–a big chunk of calories.”

Big Soda manufacturing doubt

Why do Big Soda companies intentionally under represent the amount of their products consumers are drinking? Maybe it’s because the public is starting to become aware that scientific research links drinking SSBs with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease, as well as obesity. The beverage industry can’t disprove the science, but they can try to muddy the waters by creating doubt about how much responsibility they should bear.

“Obesity? Diabetes? Can’t be our fault – people are hardly drinking full calorie soda at all!”

A recent LA Times article about a Stanford professor who studies agnotology, defined as “the cultural production of ignorance”, addresses this. It says:

“The tobacco industry was a pioneer at this. Its goal was to erode public acceptance of the scientifically proven links between smoking and disease: In the words of an internal 1969 memo legal opponents extracted from Brown & Williamson’s files, “Doubt is our product.” Big Tobacco’s method should not be to debunk the evidence, the memo’s author wrote, but to establish a “controversy.”

“When this sort of manipulation of information is done for profit, or to confound the development of beneficial public policy, it becomes a threat to health and to democratic society. Big Tobacco’s program has been carefully studied by the sugar industry, which has become a major target of public health advocates.”

Lowball estimates for what percentage of their daily calories SSB consumers are getting from those drinks are just part of Big Soda’s misinformation campaign, along with confounding taxes meant to raise money with taxes meant to change behavior, and misrepresenting the conclusions of scholarly research on soda taxes and obesity.

Big Soda wants to direct our focus away from the role their products play in promoting poor health, and instead focus on the role of everything else we eat. Any government interference in what people choose to drink, they say, whether it be warning labels on SSBs or soda taxes, won’t do a thing to fix obesity, because people will still get most of their calories from food.

Nearly all of our essential, nutritious calories do come from food, but with non-essential added sugar increasingly linked by science to poor health outcomes, and SSBs being the largest single source of added sugar in the American diet, helping people cut back on SSB consumption is a no-brainer.

No ‘silver bullet’ for obesity

Will government regulation of SSBs, in the form of taxes or warning labels, fix obesity? If only it were that simple!

Obesity is a complex issue (even Big Soda acknowledges that) and it has multiple causes, which developed over many years. There is no one single intervention which – all on its own – will fix the problem; it will take multiple interventions to reverse. More nutrition education, federal agricultural policies that make fresh healthy food more affordable than processed junk food, more safe places for families to be physically active, all have a role to play.

Even though it will take multiple strategies, and one single intervention like cutting back on SSBs won’t – individually – fix the problem, that does not mean that we should not pursue individually every one of those strategies. Cancer cannot be cured by running just one experiment; does that mean medical researchers should abandon the effort to find a cure?

Don’t be fooled by Big Soda’s sound bite that “only 4% of calories in the average American diet come from soda.” The percentage of calories from all SSBs is far higher than that for those who drink them, and the health consequences are devastating. Sowing doubt in the public mind is the name of Big Soda’s game, but it is their claims we should be doubting.

Read other articles in the Soda Tax Myths series:

Soda Tax Myths: Are Beverage Companies Friends to the Poor?

Soda Tax Myths: The Arkansas Argument

Soda Tax Myths: Soda Taxes Distract from Real Issues

Truth an Early Casualty in SF’s Soda Tax Fight

Soda Tax Myths: Are Beverages Being Unfairly Targeted?

Soda Tax Myths: Do Soda Taxes Reduce Obesity Rates?

More on debunking soda tax myths.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.

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