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Is Soda Bad For You?

by Alison Hudson

November 24, 2014

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This is a reader-recommended topic. In the comments to my post "Please Don't Tell My Daughter There Are 'Chemicals' In Her Soda," 'Kristin' said:
Sodas ARE bad for you. It’s a fact, and believe it or not I’m not trying to scare you. If you feel other wise of course you have a right to your own opinion. It seems you feel offended because the soda you enjoyed as a child (yes, it would naturally bring up nostalgic feelings) is being called ‘bad’. Maybe you should do some research and write from the realm of knowledge rather than from a state of defensiveness.
Assumptions about my lack of research aside, I think 'Kristin' has offered up a splendid idea! Are sodas bad for you, blanket-statement-full-stop? Let's find out.

In the past couple weeks I have done more research, and I have quickly discovered something. In order to answer the question "Are sodas bad for you?" it turns out we need to ask two other questions: What's in the soda? and How much soda is being consumed?

First, what's in the soda? The base recipe of any soda is carbonated water with flavorants and preservatives. There's no real danger in drinking carbonated water, which is just water with CO2 pressure-forced into it, at anything resembling a normal level of consumption (though that hasn't stopped some people from claiming otherwise). Thus, the "danger," if one exists, comes down to the flavorants and preservatives. Already, we have hit our first snag: you cannot make any blanket statement about "soda" being bad or good because different sodas contain different chemical mixtures.

From reading, I find that the complaints about soda ingredients generally break down into four areas.

1) Caloric sweeteners. There is definitely a major movement against the sweeteners in soda, and these sweeteners form one of the major angles of attack against the beverages. The two key sweeteners are cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), with HFCS definitely being the prime target of criticism (and also the more common of the two sweeteners in soda in many countries). The primary complaint against sugar is caloric intake -- i.e. drinking sugary soda leads to weight gain. Complaints against HFCS are far more varied, from weight gain to cancer, and go beyond just its presence in soda.

Worth noting is that sugar and HFCS are found almost exclusively in non-diet sodas, and sweetened sodas usually contain one or the other, not both. Neither sugar nor HFCS is common in all sodas.

2) Non-caloric sweeteners. There's also a significant movement against sweetener substitutes. In this category, aspartame and sucralose are the two chemicals most often mentioned and debated, with aspartame being the primary target of criticism. Like HFCS, aspartame has a wide range of complaints leveled against it independent of its soda status. Sucralose also has non-soda-specific concerns levied its way.

Worth noting, again, is that neither aspartame nor sucralose is found in all diet sodas, and diet sodas usually contain one or the other, not both. Neither aspartame nor sucralose is common in all sodas.

3) Phosphoric acid. There's also a significant concern about phosphoric acid, a flavorant that gives some sodas (primarily colas) a "tangy" taste. Phosphoric acid is the primary culprit in the "soda rots your teeth" complaint and also the reason why colas are popularly used as a DIY cleaner. It has also been accused of things like increasing cancer risks and lowering bone density. Worth noting, yet again, is that phosphoric acid is primarily found in colas. It is not common in all sodas.

4) Caffeine. As some of the most popular sodas out there "cola and Mountain Dew "contain caffeine, it routinely gets mentioned as a problem ingredient, though as with the other ingredients the complaints are not always soda-specific. Worth noting is that caffeine is only present in some sodas, primarily colas (again). It is not common in all sodas. [Seeing a pattern here?]

5) Other ingredients. Occasionally, other ingredients in soda get singled out, though not nearly often enough to earn their own category here or to make any general statement about what the potential dangers of such ingredients may be. At this point, it should come as no surprise when I note that none of these other ingredients is common in all sodas.

Given the variety of ingredients in different sodas, it's impossible to say whether or not "soda" is bad for you. Other than carbonated water, there's no consistent formulation to these drinks. It would seem, based on ingredient concerns alone, that colas are the worst. But even there, another thing needs to be considered:how much soda is being consumed?

I would be remiss if I didn't offer a link here to my recent post "Yes, the Dose Really Does Make the Poison," as that article says exactly what I'm about to say here: whether or not a given ingredient is going to kill you depends on how much of it you consume. Even if all the worst things soda opponents say about soda were true, a person who only drank a single 12 oz can of cola once per year would be getting those awful things in such a low dose from the cola that it would have no real impact on their health.

Of course, a typical retort will be "But people don't just drink one soda a year! They drink too much soda!" And that's right: some people drink a lot of soda. If one wants to argue about the over-consumption of sodas, I'm all for it; sweetened sodas are essentially empty calories and can easily invite weight gain. But the problem there is over-consumption, a problem not unique to sodas, and any over-consumption of a specific soda ingredient leading to problems is a matter of dosage as much as anything.

So, back to the question: are sodas bad for you? The safe answer is "it depends on what you're drinking, specifically, and how much of it you're drinking." In my own experience, and after doing a lot of reading on the subject, my own personal approach to soda is this: if I drink a 12 oz. can of pop a couple times a week, it's not going to kill me, it's not going to rot my teeth (assuming I practice proper dental care), and it's not going to cause weight gain (assuming I drink it as part of a reasonable diet). I avoid over-consumption mainly because of the caloric load (in the case of sweetened sodas) and because of bad taste (in the case of diet sodas).

I feel that this is a reasonable and rational approach. I keep an open mind, though, and I am ready to change my stance the moment someone can convince me that drinking a single Faygo Creme Soda a week will kill me.

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by Alison Hudson

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