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Health officials: Just say no to soda

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse

As another heat wave grips Boston, city officials are advocating a healthy way to stay refreshed — soda-free.

 Last month, the Boston Public Health Commission and the Strategic Alliance for Health kicked off its Soda-Free Summer Challenge, which urges residents to swap soda for water, milk or fruit juice.

To participate in the challenge, Bostonians can either pledge to “reduce the amount of soda,” or to “not drink soda this summer.” Those who take the pledge will be entered into weekly raffles for prizes including online personal fitness training, water bottles, grocery store gift cards and a bicycle.

“Many people are unaware that a single, 20-ounce regular soda contains 17 teaspoons of sugar,” said Dr. Nancy Norman, chief medical officer at the Boston Public Health Commission. “This campaign is about making them aware of the adverse impact that sugary beverages, starting with soda, can have on their health.”

According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, soda accounts for 7 percent of daily calories in the United States. For teenagers, this percentage stands even higher, at nearly 11 percent.

Today, teens consume an average of 21 ounces of soda each day — nearly two cans, 250 calories, and 17.5 teaspoons of sugar, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an independent consumer advocacy group.

 Three decades ago, teens only drank an average of five ounces of soda each day.

 Soda consumption has demonstrable effects on health. Researchers at Children’s Hospital in Boston and Harvard’s School of Public Health found that “sugar-sweetened drink consumption could be an important contributory factor” to childhood obesity.

Their study showed that with each additional serving of sugar-sweetened beverages, Massachusetts public school students experienced weight gain, and increased body mass index, or BMI.

A similar study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that women who consumed more than one sugar-sweetened soft drink per day were at higher risk for type 2 diabetes, and gained more weight than women who consume less than one per month.

The high calorie and sugar content of soda is of particular concern as obesity rates skyrocket across the country. According to the Boston Public Health Commission, 54 percent of Boston adults were overweight or obese in 2008. Minorities are disproportionately represented in this number — black and Latino adults are obese at twice the rate of white adults.

But soda is not just a health risk for what it puts in one’s body — but also for what it keeps out.

Choosing soda means not choosing nutritious beverages, like milk, water or fruit juice. For this reason, soda consumption has been linked to several vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. The USDA also found this trend in adult women: high soda consumption is associated with low calcium intake.

But many nutrition experts have argued that the soft drink industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars on expensive marketing campaigns that encourage consumers to drink more soda at the expense of good health.

As a whole, the soda industry produces enough soda to provide each American with 52 gallons per year, or a can and a half per day. Sixty years ago, production was at one-tenth this rate.

To further encourage Americans to drink their beverages, the industry has increased their container sizes, and provides economic incentives. In the 1950s, Coca-Cola’s standard serving size was 6.5 ounces. Today, the 12-ounce can is the norm — with 20-ounce bottles and the 64-ounce “Double Gulp” becoming more common.

These larger servings are also significantly cheaper in cost per ounce than smaller servings are. CSPI reports that a 16-ounce “small” soda at McDonald’s costs about $1.05 (6.5 cents per ounce), while a large, twice its size, costs only about $1.57 (4.9 cents per ounce).

 The soft drink industry also spends more than $700 million annually on television, magazine and other media advertising. But this number is dwarfed by the amount spent on other forms of marketing, like product placement in movies and television shows and school sponsorships. In 2004, the Coca-Cola Company alone spent $2.2 billion on promotions worldwide.

And Americans have responded. CSPI notes that Americans annually spend $66 billion on soda — $850 per household. Over $4 billion of this total was purchased through food stamps, according to a new editorial in the American Journal of Public Health.

But the Boston Public Health Commission is fighting back. Against the barrage of soda advertising, the soda-free campaign has launched television and radio advertisements highlighting the negative consequences of drinking soda, and is using educational materials to reach out directly to people at summer camps, community health fairs and farmers’ markets.

Dr. Nancy Norman believes these small efforts will lead to big changes. “Hopefully, the pledge they take this summer will turn into a lifestyle choice.”

For more information about the Soda-Free Summer Challenge, visit www.bphc.org or www.facebook.com/HealthyBoston.