The most common thing that I have noticed, after cars, in the United States, has been soft drink bottles and cans. Wherever I go, I see people drinking them as if they were water. It makes me wonder if this rampant consumption of colas is a superb success story of consumerism. This habit has been so entrenched in the American society that it is normal to buy a cola along with a meal. For somebody from India, this took a while to get used to. This is not to say that people in India do not drink colas. They are a huge success there as well. This is just to say that over there it is not normal to gulp a soft drink along with a meal.
This is an attempt to understand the various forms of soft drinks, the ill effects of excessive soda consumption, and explore the possible ways to solve the soda problem.
In one of my classes in the Culinary Program, there is a lady who said that she doesn’t like water because it doesn’t have a flavor. Therefore, she doesn’t drink it at all. This was a shock when I first heard it. However, it was not surprising after a few weeks into the course. She is the one who often calls in sick and almost failed in a course due to lack of attendance. Why is she hooked on soft drinks? Isn’t she aware of the consequences of excessive soda consumption? Hasn’t anyone told her to quit or reduce soda consumption? These will remain unanswered, as I didn’t dare to ask her.
Excessive cola consumption is an issue of contemporary American public controversy, because it is so entrenched that the consumers might actually get offended if they are told that it is a bad habit. They have been marketed and promoted as something “cool” for years and it might create a backlash if consumers are told explicitly to keep away from them.
There is an ever-increasing consumption of sugars in the form of soft drinks and an even greater evidence about their ill effects on human health. The continued increase in liquid sugar consumption is largely due to the fact that the industry comes up with new products, often with “healthy” names to mislead the consumers. Sadly, these, supposedly healthy drinks are equally harmful, if not more.
There are various forms of soft drinks. If there is one product that has reincarnated itself successfully, it has to be undoubtedly sugary water. Pop, soda, soda pop, a soft drink, a carbonated drink, a cold drink, an energy drink, a sports drink, fruit juice, or a fruit drink, all of these beverages, are just sugary water with a dosage of caffeine. There are over 3,000 types of sugary drinks made in the United States, and as we’ve previously talked about, most of them are marketed as healthy alternatives. Most consumers think that these products are not harmful or, at the very least, they are made to believe so.
The fact of the matter is, Americans are drinking way too many soft drinks. According to the book, Killer Colas, by Nancy Appleton and G.N. Jacobs, an average American drinks about 637 twelve-ounce cans of soda that can be called sugar water per year. One might be tempted to think that at least some of the drinks might be good for health, but unfortunately, all of them are bad. Sugar-sweetened soft drinks, diet soda, sports drinks, energy drinks, iced teas, fruit drinks, fruit juices, or meal replacements are all equally harmful.
It is important to look at how the body functions and why excessive sugary water consumption throws it into imbalance. Glucose, blood urea nitrogen, uric acid, and minerals should be in equilibrium for the body to operate at its peak efficiency. This is called as homeostasis. However, excessive sugar consumption, especially in the form of liquid, disrupts this balance and leads to the progression of disease.
Sugar makes the blood acidic, and the body responds to it by pulling out calcium and other minerals into the bloodstream to balance it, eventually making the cola consumer, calcium and mineral deficient. It results in a body with insufficient minerals that does not digest the food properly. This undigested food is then discarded by the immune system on a daily basis, compromising its efficiency. This is, therefore, a perfect scenario for infectious and degenerative diseases to thrive.
Is sugar that bad? As with everything else, sugar too should be consumed in moderation. However, the major issue with soft drinks is the form of sugar that is used to make them. The source and the type of sugar makes a huge difference, in determining its effect on the human body. Some of the various forms of sugar that the industry uses include, sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, crystalline fructose, honey, and maple syrup. All of these have varying percentages of glucose and fructose in them. While glucose is easily metabolized, fructose is a tough nut to crack, which explains why these ingredients have varying effects.
Cola makers are aware that not all of the public is oblivious to the ill effects of sugar. They constantly come up with supposedly healthy substitutes for sugar. These substances are even harder to digest. They are one of the several gimmicks used to sell more of the same stuff. Acesulfame Potassium, Aspartame, Neotame, Saccharin, Sucralose, Steviol Glycosides, and sugar alcohols like sorbitol, xylitol, malitol, erythrotol, and mannitol are some of the widely used sugar substitutes.
This brings us to the other additives in sugary drinks. The most prominent of them all, is phosphoric acid. It is joined by caffeine, guarana, yerba mate, carbon dioxide, caramel coloring, citric acid, sodium citrate, ascorbic acid, flavoring, sodium benzoate, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, and Bisphenol A among many other things. Almost every additive is artificial and has no nutritional value.
The phosphoric acid and carbon dioxide in soft drinks cause acid reflux, which is commonly known as heartburn. Sodium benzoate along with sugar in soft drinks can trigger asthma episodes. Sodium benzoate can cause an allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, which can result in complete closure of airways, shock, and death.
These products take water, which is the one of the essentials of life, add a whole gamut of questionable ingredients, and sell them at a huge margin to mint money. It is virtually impossible to find any redeeming nutritional value in soda or sweetened beverages.
Even the cousins of colas, like diet colas, sports drinks, energy drinks, iced teas, fruit drinks, fruit juices, enhanced waters, and meal replacements are not healthy. The diet colas have sugar substitutes which are equally, if not more, harmful. Sports drinks, energy drinks, iced teas, fruit drinks, fruit juices, and enhanced waters have high-sugar content which negate the supposed health benefits of consuming them. These specialty drinks serve the purpose, but also burden the human body with a lot of unhealthy ingredients.
One of my friends told me, more than a decade ago, that the cost of making a can or a bottle of cola is less than 5% of its retail selling price. This guy’s father has a minor stake in one of the hundreds of bottling plants that Coca Cola has all over the world. This explains why the cola companies can afford to spend billions of dollars on celebrity endorsements and advertising. As colas are products that humans can do without in their daily lives, they need to be in their eye all the time. People have to be reminded day-in and day-out on how cool it is to consume colas, and that is what they do every single day.
A look at the ill effects of excessive soda consumption is startling. Consumption of soft drinks can affect health in the following ways: Obesity, liver damage, mood swings, body inflammation, diabetes, blood pressure, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, tooth decay, osteoporosis, gout, gastrointestinal distress, caffeine headaches, decreased high-density lipoproteins, metabolic syndrome, incontinence, pancreatic cancer, leach calcium from bones, preterm delivery, tics, gestational diabetes, hypokalemia, impair memory, kidney stones, lower sperm count, depression, epilepsy, early menstruation, high uric acid levels, and esophagus cancer. This is not to state that cola consumption is the only reason for these diseases. It has been proved beyond doubt that excessive soda consumption aggravates and plays a vital role in causing these diseases in consumers.
According to the study, “Pop-Cola Acids and Tooth Erosion: An In Vitro, In Vivo, Electron-Microscopic, and Clinical Report Dec 2, 2010,” by Amirfirooz Borjian, Claudia C. F. Ferrari, Antoni Anouf, and Louis Z. G. Touyz, published in the International Journal of Dentistry, all the six common colas (Pepsi Cola, Diet Pepsi Cola, Coca Cola, Diet Coke, Selection Cola and Diet Selection Cola), leech calcium out of teeth, when rinsed with either of them.
This calcium leech phenomenon is also corroborated by the study, “Immediate Erosive Potential of Cola Drinks and Orange Juices” by Jensdottir, T; Holbrook, P; Nauntofte, B; Buchwald, C; Bardow, A, published in the Journal of Dental Research; Houston, Mar 2006.
Cancer is one of the deadliest disease in the world, and the link between cancer and sugar has long been established. In 1927, Otto Warburg published a Nobel Prize winning paper that explained the way in which cancer tumors actually feed off sugar, a process referred to as fermentation. Therefore, it makes sense to avoid sugary drinks to keep cancer at bay. Sugar might not be the sole reason, but it certainly is a catalyst for cancer propagation.
Sugar, caffeine, and phosphoric acid soften bones. According to the study, “The effects of corrosive substances on human bone, teeth, hair, nails, and soft tissue.” by K.M. Hartnett, published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, lye, bleach, organic septic cleaner, and Coca-Cola corroded bone, tooth, hair, fingernails, skin, muscle, and fat in equal measure. Can you believe this? Coke is in the company of “elite” cleaners!
According to the American Health Association, the maximum limit of sugar consumption is six teaspoons for women and nine teaspoons for men. Drinking just one 12-ounce can per day will put you at risk, because it has 10 teaspoons of sugar. Can sizes are increasing and consumers are gulping many more times the permissible limit per day. No matter which drink one chooses, it is always important to recognize the size of the serving. Remember, these beverages come in various sizes and if you drink the whole container you could be getting two to three times the amount of sugar, caffeine, and other questionable ingredients stated on the label.
Well, why has soft drink consumption become so common? Why has it replaced water as the primary source of hydration? The first reason is that they are cheap and are readily available. In the book, Salt, Sugar, Fat, the author Michael Moss, explains in great detail the methods employed by Coca-Cola to make their products ubiquitous. He narrates the strategies that were employed by Coke, from the perspective of Jeffrey Dunn, a former executive. Dunn’s work in the fountain sales division at Coke is considered pioneering. He laid the strategy to make sure that the cola giant’s fountains are present at every conceivable location. Therefore, the success of colas companies, in no less measure, can be attributed to their ubiquity.
According to Moss, success did not come easily to Coke. They had to hitch the patriotic bandwagon to taste their initial success. Their association with the armed forces during the World War II was critical in laying the foundation for cola consumption becoming normal. In her book, “Killer Colas”, Nancy Appleton elaborates on this by saying that, this association with the armed forces made sure that Coke had a steady supply of sugar for its beverages, while the general public had their sugar supply rationed. The alliance with the armed forces is considered a major milestone that changed the fortune of Coke for good, forever. In the guise of being nice to the men and women defending the country, by giving them a Coke for five cents, it actually helped itself.
The other big marketing coup that Coke pulled off was to successfully influence children. They figured out that getting the attention of consumers at the youngest possible age was a sure recipe for success. Therefore, they strategized and succeeded in placing themselves amongst the family moments that defines the childhood of millions of Americans. They made sure that Coke was readily available everywhere. For example, they are present when parents take their kids to their first baseball game. This helped build a clientele base that is hooked to it for life.
Moving on, the major money-spinner for colas is their presence in restaurant chains. Combo meals in restaurants were devised and institutionalized by Coke between the1980s and 2000s. This latent strategy ensures that there is a steady stream of revenue, with minimal effort. They arrived and conquered the meal space too. They made it normal to have a soft drink along with a meal. They present themselves as benefiting the consumer by offering unlimited refills, when they are actually making sure that the consumers remain attached to their drinks.
The other big issue that Michael Moss talks about is the tremendous brand recall enjoyed by the cola brands. This is achieved by the industry’s association with sports and entertainment. Jeffrey Dunn, was again the pioneer of this marketing strategy at Coke.
This completes a full circle. A consumer first gets introduced to the colas at a young age during one of those special family moments. He then has ready access to it at schools, college, grocery stores, malls, and sports venues. His entertainment space is crowded with endorsements. His meal choices are flooded with combos offering drinks. There isn’t actually any space, private or public, that is devoid of intrusion by the cola industry. This “in your face” presence makes sure that consumers never forget the brands, ensuring constant revenue.
According to the study, “Outdoor advertising, obesity, and soda consumption: a cross-sectional study” by Lenard I Lesser, Frederick J Zimmerman and Deborah A Cohen, published in the journal BMC Public Health, the higher the percentage of outdoor advertisements promoting non-alcoholic beverages within a census tract, the greater the odds of obesity among its residents.
Is soft drink consumption a case of addiction, then? The answer is a definite yes. Soft drink addiction occurs like any other. People begin by drinking one or two sodas a week, build a carving for them and eventually reach a point where they need to have a soft drink in order to feel well. There are withdrawal symptoms, just like with any other addiction, when one is away from it for a while. Soft drink consumption is a potent mix of multisensory experience and psychological comfort.
The success of the colas is due their success in creating a product that balances the extremes of an exciting first sip and the taste of the familiar. This is science at its manipulative best! People tend to buy food and beverage products based on how they expect them to taste and feel in the mouth. The happiness that is experienced is proportionate to the sensory pleasure the food or drink provides. The optimum point of this pleasure is called bliss point. The cola companies have mastered the formula to hit this bliss point with drinks, and hence the results followed.
In his book, The Five Soft Drink Monsters, Mike Adams mentions the various sensory components that are at work to keep the consumer hooked on soda. They are:
- The feeling of wrapping your hand around a cold soft drink can or bottle.
- The distinct snap of opening a carbonated beverage.
- The clinking of ice cubes in a glass of soda.
- The tingling of the carbonation on your tongue.
- The intense sweetness of taste.
- The cool sensation in your mouth and throat.
- The sound of gulping a soft drink.
All of these components hook consumers to soft drinks. Soft drink addiction is real. Period.
Cola majors go to great lengths to safeguard their interests. How often does your physician inquire about your soft drink consumption, when treating you? In 2009, the American Academy of Family Physicians signed a marketing agreement with Coca-Cola for $500,000. This partnership was created to educate consumers on the subject of sugary beverages such as soda so that they might make informed decisions while trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. How phony? This is a classic case of paying off potential adversaries to downplay any new information that might hurt sales.
In the article, “Sugarcoating THE TRUTH” in The New York Times Upfront periodical, author Patricia Smith writes about research that talks about, how the sugar and beverage industries paid for dozens of studies that concluded their products don’t pose health risks.
I’m sure that by now, one sees the need to reduce or eliminate soft drink consumption. Let us discuss the ways to achieve that. The first step is to make a strong resolve to kick the habit. One should tell their friends and family that they are giving up soft drinks. They should start by cutting back soda consumption slowly. Water should be substituted for soft drinks. Soft drinks should not be purchased during grocery shopping. As a challenge, one should go one week without a soft drink, and reward themselves at the end of it. One should constantly read about the negative effects of soft drinks. Soft drink addiction is as serious as any other addiction and there is professional help available. Just as Alcoholics Anonymous, Food Addicts Anonymous and Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous can help in kicking off the habit.
Physicians, nurses, dietitians, and nutritionists should make a point to ask their patients about their soda consumption habits, and advise them to reduce or kick the habit. Health advocacy groups should continue to push the soft drink companies to not advertise for children and adolescents. Health-conscious people can help by not investing in cola stocks.
The government can do a great favor to the public if they end the sugar and corn subsidies. These subsidies are the ones that help keep sugar, in all its myriad forms, low. This is the reason the prices of colas are similar to that of bottled water. A prohibitively higher-priced cola has a potential to act as an effective deterrent in reducing its consumption. The government is burning a hole in its revenue collections by subsidizing sugar, while filling the corporate pockets, at the expense of the entire public. However, this legislation is easier said than done because these industries contribute immensely to political campaigns.
It is a sad commentary on the state of affairs to know that soft drinks can be purchased with food stamps. According to the article, “In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda,” in The New York Times, which quotes a United States Department of Agriculture report, sugary drinks account for approximately 6% of the purchases made with food stamps throughout the country. For example, in New York City, where 1.7 million people receive food stamps, the government essentially subsidizes $75 million worth of sugary drinks every year. This is another great example of much needed change in government policy.
Getting rid of the soft drink habit is not easy, however, it is certainly not impossible, if one makes the personal commitment and seeks appropriate help. More and more research continues to expose the ill effects of soft drinks and other sweetened beverages. While the exact reason behind the association between the products and disease is unclear at times, there is an easy way to test this theory. Stop drinking this stuff and see what happens. Based on my research for this paper, I truly believe you’ll feel better. I also truly believe that you will improve your immunity against disease more than you think. I conducted a simple experiment on myself. I drank a soft drink only a handful of times in my whole life, and I drank my last one more than a year ago. I walked into a store last week, straight up to the beverage aisle. I picked up Canada Dry Ginger Ale, lying next to the Coke cans. I never drank it before, so felt like testing it. I drank two half cans of it over two days. As a result, I experienced headache and heartburn on both those days and couldn’t sleep on both the nights. It took me two more days to become normal. Being clean of soft drinks could be the reason for the profound impact on me, but this experiment allowed me to experience firsthand the immediate harmful effects.
To be realistic, it is an enormous task to change the society’s attitude towards soft drinks. Even though they have been sincere efforts to make the products healthy by a few individuals at the top of these companies occasionally, the real impediment for them is Wall Street. Any decrease in sales/profits due to focus on healthy products is met with heavy resistance. Profits, and more profits are the only driving force.
Therefore, in their effort to keep the products cheap, manufacturers continue to invent newer and cheaper alternatives, which are often unhealthy. They continue to aggressively advertise and associate their products with all the aspects of life. This ensures that drinking an inexpensive cola remains a normal thing to do.
Low income, less personal time, and cheaper food and beverage options are the vital cogs in this vicious soft drink epidemic of enormous proportions. Employers want more out of their employees for perpetuity. They might not state this explicitly, but this forces the employees to take the shortest and minimal number of breaks possible. This drives the employees towards fast foods. The enormous amount of pressure and cutthroat competition ensures that personal time is barely available even after work hours during the week. A quick meal is again the only option for dinner too. The fast-food chains that serve these huge populace, keep the prices at the lowest possible level by using the cheapest available ingredients and paying minimal wages to their employees. These cheap and artificial ingredients in turn damage the consumers’ health and result in increased healthcare costs, which again is a huge financial burden.
With the food costs being low forever and an almost non-existent inflation, employers have the perfect reason to justify their paltry salary raises to their employees. This ensures that the corporations and their investors are making more and more profits, at the expense of lowly-paid employees. People are being made to believe that they are doing well for themselves, but in reality it is only the unhealthy and cheap products that is allowing them to sustain at such low income levels, by keeping their food bill low.
As you can see, cutting down or eliminating soft drinks from your diet could be one of the best decisions of your life and also the greatest gift you could give yourself. I reiterate, stop drinking this stuff and see what happens. I truly believe that you’ll feel better, and your health will improve tremendously.
Colas aren’t cool, indeed!
image by: Danielle Blue