Sugar, Soda, and Science | Vol. 2 / No. 42.3

Soda: coming soon in smaller servings? Photo: Flickr user Vox Efx, CC BY 2.0
Soda: coming soon in smaller servings? Photo: Flickr user Vox Efx, CC BY 2.0

So here’s the thing: the consensus is building around the so-called “free sugars” in our diets, and it’s not looking good for our health. We consume much more sugar than is healthy. But the people selling us sodas and juices — technically “sugar-sweetened beverages” or SSBs — are funding a lot of biased studies to try to convince us it’s fine. And why not? It’s in their best financial interest. Or is it?

The World Health Organization describes free sugars as “monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates” (p.7). You might also have heard them referred to as “added sugar,” which is similar, though may not count the free sugars in things like honey and maple syrup (even though they are, by and large, sugars that are added to foods). And free sugars are fine, in small amounts. The problem is, we don’t consume them in small amounts.

The latest recommendations by the WHO, from a report released this year, are as follows:

The WHO recommends both “a reduced intake of free sugars throughout the lifecourse” and “in both adults and children … reducing the intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake.” It also “suggests a further reduction of the intake of free sugars to below 5% of total energy intake.” The first two are classified as “strong recommendations,” which they classify as actions for which “the desirable effects of adherence to the recommendation outweigh the undesirable consequences,” and can therefore be taken as policy recommendations in most circumstances. The third is a “conditional recommendation,” meaning “there is less certainty” about the cost-to-benefit ratio of the action, suggesting that “policy-making will require substantial debate and involvement of various stakeholders.”(p.4)

What does this mean? Well, it means that as you get older, you should consume less in terms of free sugars, and that nobody should be taking in more than ten percent of their daily calories from free sugars. Ideally, we’d be taking in less than five percent, but they want to do more research before strongly recommending that policy.

But how much sugar is that?

Well, let’s talk numbers for a minute, keeping in mind how squishy any calorie-counting can be. “How many calories do I need?” is about two things, and with both of them the best we can do right now is make estimated guesses. I’m going to use my numbers here, but I’m a bit of a lightweight, so your mileage may vary. The first number is “how many calories do I burn?” And that’s composed of two numbers — your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which is how many calories you burn just, you know, being alive, and your Total Caloric Expenditure (TCE) which is your BMR plus however much energy it takes to do things like walk to the fridge to get another soda (pop if you’re from further north, “coke” if you’re from the other place).

For me, using this calculator, my BMR is 1575 calories a day. Add to that my physical activity, and with the amount of exercise I do (a moderate amount every day) my TCE jumps up to 2442; but if I were just sitting around all day like the majority of Americans, it could be as low as 1890. It’s a pretty hard number to pin down, but let’s assume you’re me: you’re healthy, you exercise daily (maybe not too hard, but daily), and you weigh in somewhere between a lightweight and a welterweight. Your daily caloric intake to stay the same weight is not more than 2500 calories, being generous.

So let’s say I want to stick to the strongly recommended amount of no more than 10% of my caloric intake in free sugars. What’s 10% of 2500? Easy: 250. How many grams of sugar is 250 calories? At 4 calories per gram, that’s 62.5g sugar.

That sounds like a lot of sugar, right? That’s nearly two whole cans of non-diet, non-zero, full-sugar Coca-Cola (that’s 33g per 12oz can).

But that’s only if you don’t eat any other free sugars. Where else might we find free sugars in the average American’s diet?

Do you eat cereal? Honey-nut cheerios contain 12g per cup — and let’s be honest, who eats just a cup of cheerios? You eat a big bowl every time and you know it (you hedonist), so let’s make that 18g. Frosted flakes are 15g a cup. Rice Krispies, on the other hand, only 3g a cup. Do you like orange juice? One cup of OJ (again, who are they kidding with these serving sizes?) is 21g. Ah, to hell with juice, do you like sugar in your coffee? Each teaspoon is 4g. Hell, I’ll just have peanut butter on toast for breakfast — let’s see… two tablespoons is 3g, and then there’s 1.5g in the bread… and if I have two pieces, well I guess that’s 9g of free sugars.

It’s really easy to get a lot of sugar in your diet without thinking about it, and remember, I exercise every day. Without doing that, I’m actually only getting through around 1900 calories a day, 190 calories of free sugars, or 47.5g. That’s less than one and a half cans of coke if I consumed no other sugars. And nobody does that. According to this study by the CDC, which looked at Americans over 20 from 2005 to 2010, American men were averaging 335 calories a day in free sugars.

And what if I wanted to reduce it to the more optimistic 5%?

At 5% of my current, exercising-every-day caloric intake, I couldn’t drink a whole can of Coca-Cola in a day. My intake would be 31.25g, and as I said before, a single can of Coke is 33g.

But fine, you’re saying, we’ll stick to 10%, and we’ll watch our calories and our sugar intake, and we’ll only treat ourselves to a can of soda every now and then.

If we did that, we’d all be healthier, but Coca-Cola’s financial losses would be catastrophic. Right now a small McDonald’s Coca-Cola is 16oz. A medium is 21. A large is 30. Even in the small that’s 44g sugar (but they might be watering it down, since the company website says it’s only 39g. Or they’re lying.) If we stuck to the WHO recommended guidelines, let’s just say a 12-pack of Coke would last a hell of a lot longer — and we’d buy a lot less of it.

Enter artificial sweeteners. Me, I drink a ton of soda — all of it diet. That’s because while, sure, it’s not a health drink, it’s pretty darn clear by now that it’s better for you than the sugar equivalent. Oh I know, I know, I could just drink water, but I don’t want to okay? Anyway none of the cancer studies have stuck, and unless you can’t handle aspartame (see phenylketonuria) or hate the taste (or “mouthfeel”), then go for it.

As far as I can see, makers of sugar-sweetened beverages have two ways they can go from here: they can go the way of tobacco, pay for studies that say they aren’t really bad for you, pay the “Global Energy Balance Network” for fake science, pay nutritionists to recommend their products, and watch as the decline in sugary soda consumption continues as the public refuses to believe them.

Or, they can get out in front of it, get on the side of science and defend the hell out of artificial sweeteners, and push those over ands above their other products. Because right now the anti-science, anti-sweetener propagandists are winning, and if the soda companies don’t start going low- and zero-sugar, they’re going to find themselves in a heap of financial trouble in the future.

Or, you know, we can all just keep dying of diabetes.


Richard Ford Burley is a writer, library worker, and doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s studying remix culture and the processes that generate texts. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, and feminism (and the impending sodapocalypse) here at This Week In Tomorrow.