An ocean of soda

My reaction to a new report this week that found 50 percent of Americans over the age of 2 consume at least one sugar-laden soda daily: You mean only half of us drink soda every day? In light of the soft-drink cans, mega-liter bottles and Big Gulp containers that seem to be everywhere these days, I thought it would be way more than this.

The report, issued by the National Center for Health Statistics of the CDC, is based on data collected through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2005 to 2008. It shows a steady increase in soda consumption among both children and adults over the past 30 years.

The fact that so many Americans consume sugary soft drinks should come as no surprise. The anecdotal evidence is obvious.

What’s revealing about the CDC report is how the statistics break down by age, gender and socioeconomics. Across the board, adolescents and young adults are far more likely to drink sugared soft drinks than senior citizens are. Teenage boys drink the most of all; women over age 60 drink the least.

Consumption of soda (or “pop,” if you prefer) also is concentrated among lower-income individuals.

A few thoughts come to mind:

- If consumption of sugared soft drinks declines with age, perhaps this simply reflects a change in people’s preferences as they get older. On the other hand, the statistics could well be documenting the rise of the Coca-Cola generation – that is, we now have an entire cohort of younger adults who grew up drinking soda and for whom it’s a habit, unlike older adults who came of age when sugared soft drinks were far less prevalent.

It begs the question: As the current crop of 20- and 30-somethings reaches 50 and beyond, will they continue consuming soft drinks at the same rate as they do now? And if so, what might be the consequences for their health as they age?

- That 70 percent of boys ages 2 to 19 drink soda at least once a day isn’t all that surprising. But as is so often the case with statistics, the “why” is harder to pin down than the “what”. Is it peer behavior? Is it somehow related to sports participation? Perhaps it’s simply a guy thing; milk or water just don’t seem to be the beverages of choice among young males.

- Of the many reasons why people in lower socioeconomic groups consume more sugared soft drinks, one might be that these drinks are the easiest to obtain in their neighborhoods. Studies elsewhere have documented the lack of supermarkets in poor neighborhoods. When people don’t have access to fresh food and milk at a grocery store, they turn to convenience stores or discount stores instead, where the beverage selection often is concentrated on soft drinks.

Soda has a long shelf life and doesn’t spoil as quickly as milk – something that matters both to shopkeepers and consumers. Refrigerators in lower-income housing also can be somewhat unreliable, creating further disincentives for families to stock up on perishable milk instead of pop. When a study earlier this summer found that minority parents were more likely than white parents to give their children bottled water, the response of the Minnesota Department of Health’s director of the office of minority and multicultural health was this: Many of these parents may live in housing where the water is rusty or tastes bad. Even though bottled water is more expensive, for these families it’s better than water from the tap. Socioeconomic details can matter a great deal when it comes to health behaviors.

- Efforts to make sugared soft drinks less available in schools and day care have apparently paid off. The survey found that the vast majority of soft drinks being consumed are bought from stores or at restaurants and fast-food establishments. Only a tiny sliver – 1.4 percent – comes from school or day care settings.

There are two ways to look at this. One is that school policies, although helpful at curtailing the availability of soda in schools, have only a limited effect because soda is so widely available from other sources. The other is that school policies might indeed make an overall difference but the effects are subtle and long-term and may not be visible yet.

There’s nothing wrong with a sugared soft drink from time to time. What’s worrisome is the increasing trend toward soda as the beverage of choice, from adults all the way down to 2- and 3-year-old children. The risk of obesity is talked about most frequently but there also are consequences for people’s oral health and risk of tooth decay.

Moreover, when soda replaces milk, kids may not be getting enough calcium for optimal bone strength. Some orthopedic surgeons are beginning to predict an onslaught of fractures when the current younger generation ages into the high-risk years for osteoporosis.

Given how entrenched soda has become in daily life, however, it’s hard to see American drinking habits changing anytime soon.

HealthBeat photo by  Anne Polta

2 thoughts on “An ocean of soda

  1. My 3 year old daughter gets maybe one or two sips of pop a month if she’s lucky and has done something to earn it. We buy pop occasionally. Maybe once a month. I prefer flavored water, milk, or juice. I try to set a good example for my daughter. (how many kids do you know that beg for broccoli besides mine?)

  2. What an interesting trend, regardless of what the real causes are.

    I am thirty. My parents always had soda in the house when I was a kid, and I was allowed to drink it any time and in whatever quantities I liked. Oddly: I have never really liked soda that much, and I’ve always preferred juices, lemonade, kool-aids or iced tea. While I did drink more soda as a kid than I do now, it was just never that attractive of an option to me, and I always thought it was weird that other kids weren’t allowed to have it. And that they, for some reason, wanted it.

    I don’t know if it was over-exposure or simply that it was so available that did it for me, but these days I generally drink soda only once a week or so. I don’t even very often get soda at fast food places, if there’s iced tea or lemonade available instead. I do sure like a nice root beer now and then, or sparkling lemonade–and the diet versions of these are just as good as the nondiets.

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