Ditch the Pop: Study Links Soda Consumption to Mortality

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.

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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.

 

soda mortality- soda machine

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.

 

choosing between soda- soda mortality

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
  • smoking
  • 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.

Andrew Heffernan CSCS, GCFP

About

Andrew Heffernan, CSCS, GCFP is a fitness coach, Feldenkrais practitioner, and an award-winning health and fitness writer. His work appears regularly in Men's Health and Experience Life. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children. Learn more at andrewheffernan.com and follow him on Instagram at @andrewheffernanfitness.