Can you believe it, when analysing data collected through the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey, Cancer Research UK found that teenagers aged between 11 and 18 drink almost a bathtub full of sugary drinks on average in a year. To be more precise the average soft drink consumption for this group equalled 77L per year. That is actually a very small bathtub as they normally vary in size from 77L to say 170L. However, when taking a bath the water volume is most often just half that so drinking a bathtub of soft drinks per year is a fairly accurate estimate.
The figures shed light on the extreme sugar consumption of UK teenagers in that they eat and drink three times the recommended limit, with sugary drinks being their main source of added sugar. This contributes to the development of overweight and obesity and obese children are around five times more likely to grow into obese adults. The situation is similar in many other countries. Sales of sugar sweetened beverages in Australia equates to 75L per year for every adult and child, while overall consumption of sugar sweetened beverages per person in the USA has been estimated at 115L per year.
And on it goes. So what can be done?
Taxing sugar in soft drinks
In an effort to reduce the detrimental effects of consuming excessive volumes of sugary drinks, a tax has been suggested similar to the tax on tobacco. Several countries have already imposed a tax while others are in the process to do so.
Norway has had a generalised sugar tax on refined sugar products, including soft drinks, in more than 35 years. Hungary’s tax introduced in 2011 has seen 22% of people reduce energy drink consumption and 19% of people reduce their intake of sugary-sweetened soft drinks. France introduced a targeted tax on sugary drinks at a national level in 2012 and found that sales of soft drinks declined in the year following the introduction of the tax, following several years of annual growth. Annual sales of soft drinks in Mexico declined 6% in 2014 after the introduction of a tax in 2013.
South Africa, Ireland and the United Kingdom have all decided to introduce soft drink taxes in 2017-2018. The United States does not have a nation-wide soft drink tax, but a number of cities have or will soon introduce their own taxes. There has been a growing debate around taxing soft drinks in various cities, states and even in congress in recent years. This debate alone has raised awareness of the problem and soft drink consumption is on the way down.
Other countries are still debating the benefits of a sugar tax. In Australia there is an expert group proposal to introduce a tax of 40 cents per 100 grams of sugar, which would lift the price of a two-litre bottle of soft drink by about 80 cents.
What about diet beverages?
The reduction in the consumption of sugar sweetened beverages is all good if it is replaced by water. But what about diet beverages? Sugar substitutes like aspartame are supposed to promote weight loss, but a number of clinical and epidemiologic studies have suggested that these products don’t work very well and may actually make things worse. This is quite confusing as energy intake is reduced. However, there has been some evidence that artificial sweeteners actually can make you more hungry and thus may be associated with increased energy consumption.
Now a research team has found a possible mechanism explaining why use of the sugar substitute aspartame might not promote weight loss. Their report show how the aspartame breakdown product phenylalanine blocks a gut enzyme called intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP). And IAP is normally protective in that it has been shown to prevent obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
The researchers also showed that mice receiving aspartame in their drinking water gained more weight, had higher blood sugar levels, which indicates glucose intolerance, and higher levels of the inflammatory protein TNF-alpha in their blood, which suggests the kind of systemic inflammation associated with metabolic syndrome.
So what to do?
It is quite clear that just a debate around the detrimental effects of excessive consumption of sugar sweetened beverages can have an effect. Add to that an increase in the price and the benefits are obvious as shown already in several countries.
But it is equally important that the new choice of beverage doesn’t add to the problem. The use of artificial sweeteners might not be as innocent as could be expected.