April 2007

Soda: The Newest Health Food?

This spring, Coke is launching a “nutrient-enhanced” version of Diet Coke, which, according to the nutrition label, includes 25 percent of the recommended daily allowance of several B vitamins, as well as 15 percent of the RDA for magnesium and zinc.

Pepsi is also rolling out new “healthy” drinks they call “sparkling beverages” (“soda” is so 20th century), including the vitamin-fortified Tava and Diet Pepsi Max, an energy drink with increased caffeine and ginseng. Soda executives call diet and light sodas their “health and wellness brands.”

Pop Hype?

One look at beverage industry sales figures for last year will tell you why the soda-makers are jumping on the “healthy” bandwagon. In 2005, soda sales declined for the first time in 20 years, while sales of bottled water, teas and juices, fruit drinks, and noncarbonated “energy” drinks are up.

In other words, it’s all about marketing.  If consumers say they want healthy options, the manufacturers and sales pros will position soda as healthy. As Gary Hemphill, the managing director at a consulting firm called Beverage Marketing, said, “The single biggest trend impacting sales in the beverage industry is health and wellness.”

“Not as Bad for You” Doesn’t Mean “Good for You”

One thing’s for certain, America has a soft drink habit. A recent State study analyzed US government surveys of national food intake (NHANES) and found that Americans drink 17.5 ounces of sugar-sweetened drinks per day, and these drinks are the source of a whopping 36% of added sugars in the diet.

That’s a problem, because sugary sodas have poor “satiety value,” which means that they provide concentrated calories without satisfying hunger. It won’t take too long for those extra calories to show up around your waist.

So, inasmuch as these new “health” sodas lack sugar, they represent a better choice than their sugar-sweetened kin.  (A note about diet drinks: Some Americans choose to avoid “diet” sodas out of concern over artificial sweeteners. It’s a personal decision, but it is worth noting that no convincing evidence suggests that these sugar alternatives pose any health risk to humans. This is one area of research that AICR experts continue to monitor closely.)

When it comes to the vitamin content of these drinks, it’s not ideal to get your daily dose from a bottle, especially if doing so makes you think it’s okay to eat less healthfully. The vitamins we get from food come with many other protective substances that seem to interact to fight chronic disease. A pill, powder or “health drink” just doesn’t provide that kind of comprehensive synergy.

Beverage products that tout their ginseng boosts or other herbal infusions such as ginkgo biloba are skating on even thinner ice. Herbals cannot be standardized into recommended doses, because herbal supplements are not regulated. And although research has shown some potential benefits for certain substances (like the phytochemicals naturally found in green tea), the evidence is still unclear as to what dosages would be beneficial. It’s also not known whether they would offer the same benefits when artificially added.

Other Soda Pitfalls

And drinking too much soda, with or without vitamins, may also put you at risk for bone fractures and osteoporosis. The phosphorus found in many carbonated sodas, if consumed in very large amounts, may block calcium absorption and cause loss of bone minerals, according to scientists at the Mayo Clinic. You can counter this effect by making sure to get enough calcium.

Unfortunately, dietary intake surveys show that people who drink lots of soda tend to drink less milk, which provides calcium and is a rare dietary source of vitamin D.

The Bottom Line

So are these new sodas good for you? Are they bad for you?

The answer lies somewhere in between. Enjoy them in moderation, but make sure you don’t think reaching for one after a particularly unhealthy meal or snack will provide you a “quick fix.”

Ultimately, the best way to get your daily vitamins is through a healthy, plant-based diet. Unlike these new, untested “nutrient-enhanced” products, there are decades of strong evidence showing that the real health boost comes from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and healthy whole grains, which help to boost your immune system and ward off cancer and heart disease. Just wash it all down with a big glass of fresh, clear, “unfortified” water.

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