As the heated debate continues on Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the sale of sugary drinks over 16 ounces, the public hearing held to bring arguments to the New York Board of Health that occurred on Tuesday, July 24 provided some very interesting points. Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, stated that “soda in large amounts is metabolically toxic” and that “it’s obvious that this (the proposed ban) is the right thing to do.” Chris Gindlesperger, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association, stated that “soft drinks are a treat to be enjoyed in moderation; they can play a role in a healthy, balanced and active lifestyle”. In addition, Joy Dubost, a nutritionist consulting for the National Restaurant Association, stated that there was no scientific evidence to back up the plan. Speaking recently on a FOX report about this ban, Ms. Dubost mentions “to date, the research really lacks in showing that programs such as this would be effective in changing consumer behaviour and, thus, changing the rates of obesity”. So what ARE some of the facts behind this proposed ban? One has to look at a number of different items to get a handle on science behind the proposal itself.
First and foremost, one should look at the bottling history of one of the sugary beverages included in the ban: Coca Cola. In 1894, Coca Cola was originally bottled in a glass bottle which held 10 ounces. However, once the Coca Cola company is formed in 1916, bottling is scaled down to a 6.5 ounce size for convenience. Then in 1920, the bottles are offered in 6 bottle cartons. By 1950, the bottle sizes are increased to 10 ounce, then 12 ounce bottles and, finally, 26 ounce bottles. Then in 1978, the 2 liter bottle (approximately, 67.6 ounces) that we have all come to know is released. This is an increase of over 1000% in size from the smallest offered 6.5 ounce bottle. As a side note, the initial increase in sizes comes well after the Agricultural Act of 1938 which provided subsidies for corn, cotton and wheat. Why is that important? The main sweetener in soda is High Fructose Corn Syrup. Which is derived from, you guessed it, corn!
So what’s the big deal? The big deal, at least for your health, is the consumption of Fructose. In a study published by Kimber Stanhope and Peter Havel, the “consumption of a high-fructose diet… promotes the development of… visceral adiposity”. Visceral adiposity, or visceral fat, “surrounds the organs and is connected with various diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, elevated triglycerides and the fast growing phenomenon known as metabolic syndrome.” In other words, there is scientific evidence that links high consumptions of Fructose with fat cells, but not just any fat cells. Visceral fat is not only linked with diabetes, but with higher rates of heart attacks as well. Beyond that, Fructose has been proven to be a highly lipogenic, or fat creating, sugar.
But isn’t Fructose a natural sugar found in fruits? Yes it is. But, on average, a typical orange has about 3 grams of Fructose while a 16 ounce bottle of sugary soda contains about 30 grams of Fructose. Instead of 16 ounces of Soda, try eating 10 oranges. Most likely, you will probably become satiated long before you finish that pile of oranges. Those oranges also contain Fiber and vitamins, both of which are lacking in sugary sodas. Interesting fact: on the streets of New York, most fruit carts will sell you 10 oranges for about $5. However, most convenience stores will sell you a 20 ounce soda for about $2 or less. Imagine if there were a subsidy on fresh fruits instead of corn or, by relation, High Fructose Corn Syrup.
So Ms. Dubost is correct in asserting that there is not enough evidence to support the effects of the ban. Afterall, there has never been an initiative to reverse the subsidy that helped make High Fructose Corn Syrup such a cheap ingredient for beverage makers. And while there is also no direct causal link between the subsidies and higher rates of obesity, there does seem to be an interesting correlation. But that’s an argument for the scientists and politicians. In the meantime, you might as well sit back, enjoy your cool glass of clean New York City tap water and watch to see if the ban on sugary drinks is approved in September. And if it is, will it have the same beneficial impact as the ban on smoking and trans fats already in place?