Ditch the Pop: Study Links Soda Consumption to Mortality
A recent study of nearly half a million people has shown — and not for the first time — a strong correlation between soft drinks, chronic disease, and death. And we are not only talking about sugar-sweetened soda. Artificially sweetened soda-pop has also been reported to potentially increase the risk of death, believed to be linked to circulatory diseases.
From 1992 to 2000, researchers tracked the soda and diet-soda consumption habits of 451,743 subjects from 10 European countries.
Funded by the European Commission (DG-SANCO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer —not the sugar industry — the study grouped participants based on the frequency with which they consumed sugar-sweetened or artificially-sweetened soft drinks. These frequencies ranged from less than one glass per month to two or more glasses per day.
Significantly, researchers defined a “glass” as 250 milliliters — much less than the average American consumes in one sitting. For example:
- A 12-ounce can of Coke is 355 milliliters
- A large soft drink at McDonald’s is 730 milliliters
Three of those per week at your favorite fast food joint would put you in this study’s highest-risk bracket for soda drinkers.
Over time, the researchers tracked the number of their 451,743 subjects who died. Their conclusion: both artificially sweetened and sugar-sweetened soft drinks were “positively associated with all-cause deaths.”
In layman’s terms: the more soda you drink, the more likely you are to die.
Diet Soft Drinks: Worse than Sugar-Sweetened?
In the study, the relationship between drinking soft drinks and poor health was not linear, but “J shaped.” There was a threshold beyond which consuming additional soft drinks became dangerous:
- For sugar-sweetened soft drinks, that threshold point was 225 mL (one small serving per day).
- For artificially sweetened soft drinks, however, it was just 125 mL per day — two fingers’ worth in a normal-sized glass.
If you’re going to pick a poison, then, this study suggests you’re better off choosing one with sugar than with Saccharin.
The research further showed that:
- The risk of death from circulatory diseases (heart attack, stroke, atherosclerosis) increased in consumers of artificially sweetened soft drinks but not in consumers of sugar-sweetened soft drinks.
- In the case of digestive diseases, the opposite proved true: sugar-sweetened beverages, but not artificially sweetened beverages, led to higher risk.
- The risk of death from Parkinson’s increased along with total soft drink consumption (drinking both types of soda).
- Overall, compared to people who drank the fewest soft drinks, the risk of death was 17% greater among the subjects who drank the most.
This study suggests that sugar is not the only dangerous ingredient in soft drinks: sugar-free diet drinks present health risks as well.
Case Closed on Soft Drinks?
Critics of a study like this one—on an existing population outside a lab rather than a select group in a controlled setting—are quick to point out that “cohort” studies don’t show causation, only correlation. This study doesn’t allow us to conclude that soft drink consumption leads to death or disease; only that one appears connected to the other. In a court of law, prosecutors would need more evidence to prove soft drinks guilty of those deaths beyond a reasonable doubt.
Although researchers made an effort to eliminate confounding factors, there’s no way to fully control for them in a study like this. So it’s possible that consumption of soft drinks is related to many other factors that impact health and longevity, including:
- alcohol consumption
- higher body mass (body size) index
- physical inactivity
- lower educational status
- higher caloric intake
- high consumption of red and processed meats
And self-reporting—a type of data-collection widely used in this study—can be inaccurate. (Can you honestly state how many milliliters of sugar-free soda you drank last month?)Still: this large study supports a growing body of evidence suggesting that, if we want to maximize health and longevity, soft drinks — sugary or otherwise— shouldn’t play a part in our diets. So fill up your water bottle instead of picking up that can of soda.