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In the eyes of popular culture, most sugary sodas are typically associated with fun times or a quick energy boost. But in truth, they’re linked to death. Scientific evidence illustrates that sugar consumption can contribute to many common conditions. These conditions include cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer. A large European study, recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine, now adds to that evidence. It doesn’t matter whether you drink sugary sodas or artificially sweetened pop, the consequence is the same. 

Soda, Disease, And Mortality

The new study followed 451,000 Europeans for 16 years, with an average age of 51. Those who drank more than two sodas every day had a 17 percent higher risk of dying over the study period. This effect was even stronger for artificial sweeteners.

There were significant increases in specific diseases when frequent consumption was compared to drinking sugary soda once per month or less. People consuming more than one sugary soda daily had a 59 percent greater risk of dying from digestive diseases. More than one sugary or artificially-sweetened soda each day was linked to higher rates of colon cancer and Parkinson’s disease. These risks were 25 percent and 59 percent larger, respectively. Drinking one or more artificially sweetened soda(s) every day was also related to a 52 percent greater cardiovascular disease risk.

Researchers still found these risks even after controlling for factors such as smoking and BMI. Even people of a healthy weight had a higher risk of dying from frequent sugary soda consumption. This is most likely because sodas rapidly elevate blood sugar levels, which can lead to inflammation and insulin resistance. High blood sugar also disrupts the gut barrier, while fructose promotes the buildup of fat in the liver. Artificial sweeteners contribute to metabolic syndrome and damage the kidneys and mitochondria (the cellular energy factories).

While industry representatives call artificial sweeteners “an important tool for weight management,” health professionals reaffirm otherwise. Dietician Samantha Heller states that people just don’t need to drink soda, explaining: “The consumption of beverages that taste sweet is fueled by marketing and advertising. There really is no need to consume them.”

Instead, she suggests water, seltzer, or tea.

The Soda Empire, Built On Lies

The positive perception of sugary products, including soda, may be opposite to the reality. But, the propaganda maintaining it runs deep. As early as the 1950s, the industry was aware of research linking sugar consumption to dental cavities. They then launched strategies to divert attention away from sugar. This included funding research on enzymes to break up dental plaque and building relationships with the National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR).

Interventions such as plaque-busting enzymes would minimize harm without denting sugar industry profits, providing an illusion of concern for public health. These harm reduction tactics have continued into the obesity crisis. Until disbanding in December 2015, the Global Energy Balance Network encouraged the public to focus on “maintaining an active lifestyle” to offset poor dietary habits.

The Fat Attack

In the 1960s, the sugar industry quietly funded research that pinned the blame on fat for cardiovascular disease. Here, studies finding health benefits from reducing sugar and eating more of foods such as vegetables were dismissed. Papers pointing the finger at fat were less scrutinized despite having the same weaknesses. More recently, a 2013 review found that 83 percent of industry-funded papers reported no association between sugary beverages and weight gain. Eighty-three percent of independent research, however, did find a relationship. 

One of the top pediatric centers in the USA, the CS Mott Children’s Hospital, is a controlling shareholder of US Sugar Corporation. The hospital, in turn, began as a charitable work by Charles Stewart Mott, who bought the US Sugar Corporation in the early 20th century. Ironically, they launched a telemedicine program in 2015 aimed at reducing childhood obesity while promoting the very foods that cause it. As Alan Farago wrote for The Huffington Post: “It is paradoxical, to say the least, that the hospital also profits from the massive political influence-peddling that makes sugar a widely available addictive substance to consumers and also the most ubiquitous.”

How Can We Quit Most Sugary Soda?

We know we don’t need sugary foods or soda, so how do we kick the addiction/habit? The key is detoxing and substitution. But, you don’t have to stick with plain water all the time. Herbal teas count, and there is a wide range of them to choose from. You can also add a squeeze of lemon or orange juice to your water bottle, a splash of unsweetened fruit juice, or a few crushed berries.

When stirring in your own sweeteners or making sweet treats, there are natural sugar alternatives that aren’t harmful to your health. Xylitol, a sugar alcohol from birch (avoid corn-derived varieties), has one-quarter of the calories of carbohydrates. Xylitol metabolizes eight times slower than sugar, independently of insulin.

More popular in recent years, the stevia plant provides a calorie-free sweet-fix and actually benefits metabolic health. Stevia is an antioxidant, lowers blood pressure and blood sugar, and has antimicrobial effects. While raw honey still contains sugar, it is antioxidant, prebiotic, and has enzymes that aid the digestion and absorption of its contents. Finally, blackstrap molasses is a nutrient-dense by-product of table sugar. As the “good twin”, blackstrap molasses is rich in B vitamins, magnesium, iron, potassium, and manganese. And, it contains far less sugar.

Despite industry influences, the truth is coming out. We don’t need sodas or other sugary products to enjoy life. In fact, we are better off without them. They are harmful to our health and there are far better alternatives out there that can provide a variety of flavors and nutritional benefits.  

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