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The Sinister Side of Soda

The unvarnished truth about how soda consumption affects your family's health, the environment, and communities around the world

By Tracy Fernandez Rysavy | Coop America's Real Money | January/February 2007

When it comes to the health effects of drinking soda, it's hard to separate fact from scary urban legend. Do sodas cause esophageal cancer? Can you get brain tumors from drinking too many diet sodas? Are there really 19 teaspoons of teeth-rotting sugar in each can? And just how much extra weight could you lose by kicking the can-a-day habit?

Real Money dug deep to find the facts about soda consumption and how it affects your family's health, the environment, and communities around the world. Once you discover the true facts about soda, you may want to curb your consumption and, with our help, look for healthier alternatives.

Soda: A Cancer Risk, or Not?

The bottom line is that there seems to be some increased risk of certain types of cancer from drinking sodas. Here's what you need to know:

  • THE BENZENE LINK: Tests conducted by private laboratories in November 2005 — and paid for by a concerned soft-drink industry whistle-blower-showed that certain sodas and juices had benzene levels up to ten times higher than the US drinking water limit of five parts per billion (ppb), according to Beverage, which reports news on the beverage industry. Benzene is classified as a known carcinogen by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is linked to leukemia.

Benzene can come from forest fires, burning coal and oil, and cigarette smoke. It can also form in beverages that contain sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate, combined with either ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or erythorbic acid (also known as d-ascorbic acid), according to the FDA. Heat and light exacerbate benzene formation in sodas with these ingredients.

"Product lists show more than 1,500 soft drinks containing sodium benzoate and ascorbic acid have been launched across Europe, North America, and Latin America since January 2002," writes Chris Mercer, editor of Unfortunately for cautious consumers, the benzene limit for drinking water does not apply to soft drinks, which have much less stringent standards, so sodas with high benzene content are perfectly legal in the US.

Though the FDA has said in March 2006 that benzene formation in soda is so minimal that it is no cause for concern, FDA tests uncovered by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit public health watchdog organization, found significant benzene concentrations in certain beverages. Says the EWG: "Between 1995 and 2001, the FDA tested 24 samples of diet soda for benzene in its Total Diet Study: 19 (79 percent) were contaminated with benzene above the federal tap water standard of five ppb. The average benzene level was 19 ppb, nearly four times the tap water standard. The maximum detection was 55 ppb, 11 times the tap water limit."

The FDA has not made public the brand names or manufacturers of those drinks tested in the Total Diet Study. They are, however, in the process of retesting certain drinks, and they are encouraging manufacturers whose beverages have tested as having high benzene levels to voluntarily reformulate their products.

The EWG is currently demanding that the FDA continue to conduct more testing on soft drinks, make any results public, and require soft drink manufacturers to reformulate their products to eliminate ingredients that combine to form benzene.

Currently, the "big three" soda companies, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Cadbury-Schweppes, are facing class action lawsuits over benzene-forming ingredients in their beverages-specifically PepsiCo's Pepsi Twist, Vault Zero and Fanta Orange-Pineapple drinks from Coke, and Crush Pineapple from Cadbury. Keep in mind that though the lawsuits mention one or two specific drinks, other drinks from these companies may contain benzene-forming ingredients. (None of their flagship products, Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, and Schweppes Ginger Ale, contained the ingredient combinations.) Other lawsuits against companies like Publix, Kraft Foods, Ocean Spray Cranberries, and Polar Beverages are also pending. Meridian, InZone Brands, and Talking Rain have settled similar lawsuits, agreeing to reformulate their drinks.

To protect your family's health, look at ingredient labels, and steer clear of sodas, sports drinks, and juices containing ascorbic acid/vitamin C or erythorbic acid/d-ascorbic acid in combination with either sodium benzoate or potassium benzoate.

  • THE ESOPHAGEAL CANCER RISK: Though a 2004 study by the Tata Medical Center in India found a correlation between esophageal cancer and carbonated soft drink consumption, a 2006 follow-up study by the Yale School of Medicine found no evidence linking soda consumption with an increased risk of any type of esophageal or gastric cancer.

However, it's important to note that carbonated soft drinks can contribute to acid reflux disease, which is a risk factor for esophageal cancer. Therefore, you should limit sodas if you have or are starting to develop acid reflux disease.

  • WHAT'S REALLY UP WITH ASPARTAME: Concerned consumers have long debated the safety of aspartame, an artificial sweetener used in many diet sodas. Rumors linking aspartame to brain tumors and other kinds of cancer have abounded for years, though current studies indicate no safety concerns with it, except that it can cause headaches in people who are sensitive to it.

However, that changed in the summer of 2005, when an Italian study published in the European Journal of Oncology found significant increases in lymphomas and leukemias among female rats fed aspartame. A year later, the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) released a follow-up study in which they assessed half a million people for cancer risk linked to aspartame consumption.

That study, which the NCI says is the most comprehensive study on cancer and aspartame to date, did not find any links between the sweetener and cancer.

The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) notes that the people in the NCI study were only 50 to 69 years old, where the Italian researchers studied the rats through their entire life span. Therefore, CSPI says, if aspartame were to cause cancer only in people over the age of 69, the NCI study wouldn't detect a problem.

Though it avers that the sweetener is "probably safe," CSPI recommends using aspartame in moderation, and it continues to urge the FDA to conduct more studies on its safety.

Some diet sodas contain sucralose, or Splenda, instead of aspartame, and CSPI says that studies indicate that sucralose is safe. If you want to be cautious, choose diet drinks made with Splenda (which is usually highlighted on the packaging).

Contributing to Poor Health

Where sodas really fall down is in their sugar content: the average 12-ounce can of non-diet soda contains a whopping ten teaspoons of sugar (usually in the form of high-fructose corn syrup), and the average 20-ounce bottle contains 17 teaspoons. The USDA recommended daily allowance of sugar is 12 teaspoons for someone eating 2,200 calories per day.

It's no secret that consuming excessive amounts of sugar contributes to obesity, which in turn causes many health problems, including heart disease and diabetes. With the average person in the US drinking over 50 gallons of soda each year, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation — more than their water and vegetable juice intake — it's no wonder that one-third of Americans are clinically obese.

A study by the Harvard School of Public Health linked soda consumption with obesity in adults. Looking at tens of thousands of female nurses over eight years, Harvard found that women who increased their consumption of soft drinks from less than one a week to one a day gained an average of 18 pounds. Women who originally drank one or more soft drinks per day who cut back to less than one a week showed the least weight gain — about six pounds. The study found that women who drank soft drinks daily also had twice the risk of diabetes as those who drank little or no soda.

CSPI's report on soda consumption and health, Liquid Candy: How Soft Drinks are Harming Americans' Health, states that drinking too much soda may also increase the risk of osteoporosis (because soda drinkers tend to drink less milk) and kidney stones (linked to the phosphoric acid in most sodas), according to some studies.

Drinking soda also crowds out healthier foods by curbing one's appetite, which is particularly disturbing when it comes to children, whose growing bodies need all the nutrients they can get. A study of six- to 13-year-olds published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that those who drank more sweetened beverages, including soda, drank less milk. Those who drank an average of 20 ounces of soda a day had lower intakes of calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin A, and other vital nutrients.

Spoiling Your Smile

Talk to your dentist about drinking soda daily, and s/he'll most likely cringe at the thought. It's not just the sugars in soda that harm your teeth, but the acid content. The pH level in your mouth is around 6.2-7.0, hovering around the neutral range and slightly more acidic than water. The pH of regular and diet soda ranges from 2.47 to 3.35, which is quite acidic, according to the Missouri Dental Association's "Stop the Pop" campaign. Compare the pH of Dr. Pepper, 2.92, to that of vinegar, which ranges from 2.55-3.18, to get an idea of just how acidic soda is.

That acid eats away at your tooth enamel, which, when combined with sugar consumption, contributes significantly to tooth decay. Even if you drink diet soda, the acid in it can still erode your teeth enamel, causing problems when you do consume sugar.

US dentists are in agreement that water is a much better alternative to soda for your teeth and your overall health. When you do consume soda, it's best to drink it with a meal, where the food you eat will help dilute the acid. And if you can, brush your teeth right after having a soda.

Soda and Social Responsibility

If the health issues associated with soda weren't enough, there are social responsibility problems as well. Co-op America's Responsible Shopper researchers found that some soft drink companies have been committing environmental and human rights abuses in the countries in which they operate.

Coca-Cola, for example, has been the focus of an international water rights campaign by the India Resource Center, because it conducts high-volume water extraction in states like Kerala and Rajasthan, where extreme shortages of potable water are a major problem ( And the Killer Coke campaign ( alleges that eight union organizers at Colombian Coca-Cola plants have been murdered and nearly 100 others have been tortured by paramilitary groups, while Coca-Cola has yet to fully investigate the claims.

Not to be left behind, Pepsi has also been accused by consumer groups of privatizing aquifers and pumping them dry in areas where people are poor and water is scarce. And the 7-Up/RC Bottling Co., part of Cadbury-Schweppes, pled guilty in US District Court in Los Angeles in November 2005 to 12 criminal counts of violating the Clean Water Act. Industrial runoff from the bottling facility included toxic, petroleum-based substances.

In addition, the entire soda industry still isn't doing nearly enough to use recycled content in soda containers and ensure that those containers are recovered and recycled. None of the 13 largest US beverage companies received above a C grade for container recycled content and recovery on the Container Recycling Institute's "US Beverage Container Recycling Report Card," and half of them received failing grades. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, the two largest soda manufacturers, both earned Cs, and Cadbury-Schweppes earned an F. Only PepsiCo has committed to using ten percent recycled plastic content in its bottles — clearly the industry can do better.

For more on these and other problems in the soda industry, from mining to climate change, visit our Web site at

Natural Alternatives

The best alternative to soda is water, as it's generally free from sugar, artificial preservatives and colorings, and acids; it's calorie-free; and it's regulated under stricter safety guidelines than soda. But if you want something with a little more flavor, try these natural alternatives to soda:

  • SPARKLING JUICES: Look for drinks that are 100 percent fruit juices combined with sparkling water for an all-natural drink with the effervescence of a soda. Brands to try include Izze, R.W. Knudsen organic fruit sparklers, and The Switch.
  • NATURAL SODAS SWEETENED WITH EVAPORATED CANE JUICE: Evaporated cane juice is less refined than sugar, so it still has some of the nutrients that refined sugar has lost through processing. Keep in mind, though, it'll still add empty calories to your diet and contribute to tooth decay if you drink too much, so use it in moderation. Look for sodas made without artificial ingredients, like Hansen's Natural Sodas or GuS (Grown-up Soda).
  • ORGANIC SODAS: Sodas containing organic ingredients are also generally made without artificial ingredients, and buying them helps support organic farmers. Try Blue Sky Soda and Santa Cruz Organic.

To really increase the social responsibility of your beverages, there's always Co-op America business members who sell drinks like organic, Fair Trade, and/or all-natural coffee and tea, chai, yerba mate, and fruit juices — made, bottled, and sold in ways that care for people and the planet.

But no matter what you choose, try to drink the recommended six to eight eight-ounce glasses of water each day, eat a balanced diet, and limit your sugar intake for optimal health.

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