The self-appointed nutrition-nanny organization, the Ralph Nader-inspired Center for Science in the Public Interest, this week proclaimed that sodas -- both sugar-sweetened and diet versions -- pose a health hazard, particularly to children. The report "Liquid Candy: How Soft Drinks Are Harming America's Health" charges that soda consumption increases the risks of diseases ranging from heart disease to tooth decay, osteoporosis, cancer, obesity, and poor nutrition.
In the course of proclaiming soda "junk food," CSPI has relied on rhetoric, emotion, and junk science. Consumers -- and particularly worried parents -- should put CSPI's charges in perspective.
CSPI is well aware that food and nutrition topics are highly emotionally charged issues. When you add a focus on children's health, the "emotional radar" is even more sensitive. We all want our children to be healthy -- and we know that a balanced, varied diet is an important key to achieving that goal. We, as parents, are vulnerable to those who tell us that our kids are in jeopardy, whether the claim is about alleged "toxins" in the environment or unhealthy food.
But how do CSPI's charges that soft drinks threaten health hold up under scientific scrutiny?
Soft drinks and dental caries: It is the sticky sugars in food, not sugared liquids, that are particularly important in promoting tooth decay. Parents concerned about preventing tooth decay should (in addition to insisting on fluoridated water and professional fluoride treatments) be aware of the impact foods such as raisins and dates can have in promoting tooth decay -- if consumption is not followed by tooth brushing.
Soda and obesity: Soft drinks do not contribute to obesity any more than any other source of calories does. Ironically, CSPI, while declaring its concern about obesity, misleads consumers by suggesting that fruit juices are a better choice for those who want to reduce caloric intake -- when of course juices can have the same or higher caloric content as soda. The obvious response to any parent who is worried about children getting excess calories from soda is to switch to diet soda, which is clearly a more logical alternative in dealing with obesity concerns than is a switch to fruit juice. But CSPI does not endorse diet soda, instead implying that sodas with artificial sweeteners are not safe.
Diet sodas and health risks: Perhaps the most reckless and insidious claim CSPI makes is that the artificial sweeteners used in diet sodas are unsafe, specifically, that saccharin has been shown to cause cancer both in humans and rodents. For good measure, they throw in the charge that aspartame (NutraSweet) has been insufficiently studied. Both charges are false. Saccharin, consumed in huge doses, has indeed been shown to increase the risk of one tumor in one type of male rat. But a significant collection of human studies, many of which focused on diabetics who had consumed unusually large amounts of saccharin, found no link with human cancer. In a sleight of hand, CSPI, in order to charge that saccharin causes bladder cancer, cites one aberrant study labeled "preliminary." Nutrasweet (aspartame) is probably one of the most-studied food additives in history, and with the exception of people with PKU (phenylketonuria, a relatively rare condition that requires restriction of many dietary proteins), there is no evidence that aspartame poses any health hazard.
Sugar and heart disease: In what has to be the ultimate stretch in linking an ingredient with disease, CSPI claims that those who eat a diet high in sugar are at higher risk of heart disease -- in much the same way cigarette smokers elevate their risk of heart disease by smoking. This comparison is preposterous. Consuming sugar in any form as part of a well-balanced diet does not pose a threat to health. And once again, if one is concerned about total calories, diet soda is a viable option -- albeit one rejected by CSPI.
Diet and osteoporosis: CSPI argues that a diet low in calcium may for some people increase the risk of bone loss, or osteoporosis, later in life. And certainly that can be true. But this is hardly an argument that soda is a cause of bone loss. Soda was never meant to replace milk and other dairy products. The key is balance and variety. One cannot help but wonder, in considering CSPI's concern about kids and adults not getting enough calcium, if the organization plans to endorse consumption of low-calorie 7-Up Plus, the relatively new soft drink that comes fortified with calcium and vitamin C.
The bottom line in pondering soft drinks in the context of good nutrition and health is this: soda is mainly water -- and thus a good means of hydration. All of us need calories for energy; the problem is not the calories per se but that many of us consume too many of them and don't burn enough of them off through exercise. Instead of categorizing foods, like soft drinks, as "good" or "bad," we need to use common sense and follow the maxim: everything in moderation.