Hold That Sugary Drink for Better Health

Sugar-sweetened drinks linked to high death tolls worldwide

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Sugary drinks may taste good, but they may also take a big toll on public health.

A new study from Tufts University found that sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) may be linked to deaths from diabetes, heart disease and cancer. These death rates were particularly high in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“Many countries in the world have a significant number of deaths occurring from a single dietary factor, sugar-sweetened beverages," said lead study author Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, the dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University in Boston, in a press release. "It should be a global priority to substantially reduce or eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages from the diet."

Lianne Marks, MD, PhD, an internal medicine physician at Scott & White Healthcare in Round Rock, TX, told dailyRx News that "I have read information previously that one soda daily contributes to about 8 lbs of weight gain. And weight gain is only one problem. As this study shows, soda contributes to mortality, meaning death, through multiple mechanisms (including diabetes, heart disease and stroke, and probably cancer)."

But soda isn't the only culprit, Dr. Marks said.

"In general tea and coffee has been shown to reduce risk of death (although you need to be careful if these drinks increase your blood pressure above the normal range)," Dr. Marks said. "However adding large amounts of sugar may negate these benefits and actually cause risk. Energy drinks have danger besides excess sugar and weight gain. They often contain more caffeine and sugar than soda, and can contain other dangerous ingredients."

Dr. Mozaffarian and team looked at the consumption of SSBs from 62 dietary surveys. All of these surveys were conducted between 1980 and 2010, and more than 611,000 people from 51 countries participated.

SSBs were defined as any sugar-sweetened soda, fruit drink, sports drink, energy drink or sweetened iced tea. Homemade sugary drinks such as frescas (fruit drinks with sugar and seltzer water) — which are popular in the Caribbean and Latin America — were also classified as SSBs. Pure fruit juice was excluded.

When Dr. Mozaffarian and team eliminated other factors that might have contributed to death rates, they found that SSBs may have been responsible for 133,000 deaths from diabetes in 2010. SSBs may have also been responsible for 45,000 heart disease deaths and 6,450 cancer deaths, according to these researchers.

The impact of sugar-sweetened beverages varied greatly between populations. At the extremes, the estimated percentage of deaths was less than 1 percent in Japan for people over 65, but 30 percent in Mexican adults younger than 45.

Of the 20 most populous countries, Mexico had the highest death rate attributed to sugar-sweetened beverages — with an estimated 405 deaths per 1 million adults. The US ranked second with an estimated 125 deaths per 1 million adults.

According to Dr. Mozaffarian and team, these results indicate the need for efforts to reduce SSB intake throughout the world.

“Some population dietary changes, such as increasing fruits and vegetables, can be challenging due to agriculture, costs, storage, and other complexities," Dr. Mozaffarian said. "But this is not complicated. There are no health benefits from sugar-sweetened beverages, and the potential impact of reducing consumption is saving tens of thousands of deaths each year."

Dr. Marks added, "Based on available data, I would posit that there is no completely safe level of sugary drink consumption or drinks with artificial sweetener. Therefore, it is helpful to your health if you minimize the consumption of these types of products. Instead, a reasonable amount of tea and/or coffee if your body tolerates it (with a small amount of sweetener), and of course water is the way to go. When was the last time you looked at the number of ingredients and chemicals in many of the sodas and energy drinks available? Do yourself a favor and stick with simple and safe options."

This study was published June 29 in the journal Circulation.

The Bunge and Haas Avocado Board, Nutrition Impact, Amarin, AstraZeneca, Boston Heart Diagnostics, GOED and the Life Sciences Research Organization funded this research. These companies are involved with heart disease, diabetes or nutrition.

No conflicts of interest were disclosed.

Review Date: 
June 29, 2015
Last Updated:
July 7, 2015