For the first time ever, scientists have taken an ‘educated guess’ at the global death toll of sugary drinks.
Up to 184,000 deaths a year may be linked to soft drinks, sports drinks, fruit drinks and other sweetened beverages, according to the study published this week in the journal Circulation.
Researchers used dietary surveys and other data from available countries to extrapolate their prediction to countries like Australia where hard data was lacking.
“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,” the study’s senior author Dr Dariush Mozaffarian said in a statement.
The study looked at the link between sugary drinks and excess weight (which is well-proven) and then the link between excess weight and the three big killers of diabetes, heart disease and cancer (an educated guess).
Diabetes from soft drinks kills 133,000 worldwide, followed by 45,000 from heart disease and 6450 from cancer, the report calculated.
Leading nutrition expert Dr Rosemary Stanton, who worked on Australia’s dietary guidelines, told The New Daily that sugary drinks are a “major” cause of obesity.
They are the second-biggest source of sugar (9.7 per cent) in the Australian diet after fruit (16 per cent), and are becoming increasingly popular with younger age groups, the national health survey reported.
“The problem is only going to get worse because young people now are consuming far more of these drinks than their parents did,” Dr Stanton said.
“You can say definitely that the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks is quite definitely related to excess weight.”
People who are short, inactive or overweight should avoid sugary drinks altogether, Australia’s dietary guidelines recommend. Everyone else should “limit” their intake.
Water, tea and coffee should be our go-to options to quench thirst, Dr Stanton said.
The industry body for soft drink companies has dismissed the report as “scaremongering” because sugary drinks have not been shown to be a “unique” cause of diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
“Focusing on soft drink consumption alone misses the bigger picture of the causes of chronic diseases,” Australian Beverages Council CEO Geoff Parker told AAP.
Dr Stanton acknowledged that soft drinks are not the only cause of obesity, and thus illness.
“This whole problem of obesity and diet is not confined to any single food. It’s just that the evidence is very strong for sugar-sweetened drinks.”
Part of the problem is that these drinks do not seem to make us feel full, Dr Stanton said.
“When we drink a sugar-sweetened drink and take in calories, we don’t take in less of anything else,” she said.
“The body doesn’t seem to have any ability to recognise any degree of fullness from drinking a sugar-sweetened drink compared with water.”
Interestingly, pure fruit juice was not included in the report.
Some pure fruit juices, such as those sold by the brand Emma & Tom’s, have been given the maximum five health stars under the new ratings scheme.