Counting the Amount of Sugar in Soda: It’s Time to Rein in “Big Soda”

When I was a kid, I drank soda pop. But back then there were no 2-liter bottles or Double Big Gulps. Nor were there millions of vending machines and hundreds of thousands of fast-food outlets tempting us to plunk down a buck or two for a 20 oz. bottle…or a 40 oz. bucket. If we still drank 6.5 oz. bottles of “liquid candy” on special occasions, soda wouldn’t be a major threat to our health.

I stopped drinking pop in the 1970s, around the time the soda industry was perfecting its marketing machine. As people tripled their gulps of soda, obesity rates tripled in kids and doubled in adults. (Not that soda was entirely to blame.) Type 2 diabetes, which is partly caused by obesity, also shot up.


There is plenty of evidence showing that sugar drinks lead to weight gain. Studies find that people don’t compensate for liquid calories by eating less the rest of the day.

Since 1998, Americans have been wising up. Based on data from the industry publication Beverage Digest, per capita consumption of “carbonated sugar drinks” (which includes regular soda and energy drinks, but not sports drinks, fruit drinks, ades, teas, and sugary waters) dropped by a remarkable 25 percent. Regular Coke is down by 34 percent and Pepsi by an astounding 51 percent.

The soda giants—no surprise—are doing everything they can to restore their profits. Coke recently said that it was adding $1 billion to its $3 billion annual global advertising budget. Companies appear to be spending more advertising dollars on minority populations. And they’re buying up small companies whose flavored waters, teas, and fruit juices fetch higher prices than soda.

The industry’s largest target is developing countries. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are investing an astounding $25 billion over the next five years in just four countries: China, India, Brazil, and Mexico. Mexico has overtaken the United States in per capita soda consumption—and obesity. In response, that country recently levied an excise tax on sugar drinks (and snack foods) that quickly cut consumption by 5 percent.

Company executives are drooling over potential profits from India and China, each with four times the U.S. population. Per capita consumption is only 13 (8 oz.) servings per year in India and 43 per year in China…compared to 486 in the United States. If those countries boosted their consumption only modestly, the profits would pour in.

It’s sad to see developing countries follow us down that road, knowing that sugar drinks will boost obesity, and that obesity raises the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers (like breast, colon, uterine, pancreatic, and esophageal).

In the United States, warning labels and excise taxes could help curb consumption, supermarkets and restaurants could build in price incentives that encourage people to go for lower-calorie drinks, and cities could restrict portion sizes at restaurants (as New York has been trying to do).

Better yet, the Food and Drug Administration could restrict added sugars in beverages to about one-fourth the current (roughly) 9 teaspoons per 12 ounces, as CSPI petitioned the agency to do in 2013. That would largely solve the soft-drink problem.


Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Center for Science in the Public Interest

2 Replies to “Counting the Amount of Sugar in Soda: It’s Time to Rein in “Big Soda””

  1. I’m no ‘fan’ of soda, I drink it rarely myself and always limited our children’s intake (e.g. 1-2 a week). However, I am concerned with some radical activists who advocate banning foods they don’t like- or effectively taking choices away from other adults because they don’t like the choices other people make (e.g. Bloomberg). It becomes a tougher question when your choices affect others (such as drugs). I am not your child, so I ask where do you think your imagined authority over me begins and ends? What is okay for you to dictate to me, and what line is too far? I mean consider that seriously for a moment. Well-intentioned ideals aside, you’re touching on a fundamental principle in any “free society”.

    I don’t think this article goes as far as clearly advocating bans, but suggests that better labels and finding ways to incent people to choose healthier options? Sure, and good luck. I’m in favor of educational efforts on nutrition. I like the idea of seeing Calories from Sugar, Fat, etc. on everything (cans, labels, menus, etc.). I don’t think those are common in other countries? But those are their decisions to make. However, short of demonizing a product (such as cancer photos on cigarette packs) I think that approach has limited effect for many people- people choose soda because they like it or from habit.

    Anecdotally, in my trips to Europe soda is widely available and, while their obesity rates are climbing, there are still hordes of really skinny (even scrawny) people all over and morbid obesity is rare. Their habits are different. So I think choice, culture, and price are real variables.

    Interesting news I saw this week:
    Cheaper Food May Be Fueling U.S. Obesity Epidemic
    “Many factors have been suggested as reasons for the steady climb in obesity rates over the past several decades, leading to the current situation where two in three Americans are overweight or obese. These factors include snack products and fast food, large portion sizes, vending machines, increased use of cars, and spending too much time in front of televisions and computers.
    However, cheap food has the strongest link to obesity, according to the authors of the study published online May 22 in the journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.”

    … cheap meaning we spend only 20-30% what our grandparents spent on food (proportionally) and our situation of food abundance and ease of access for so many people is unparalleled in human history. This trend is spreading across the globe as well. We need to learn to choose better, and select better habits.

  2. John: Sugar is addictive. I recently cut my sugar intake to under 24g per day, and I had to fight some fairly major sugar cravings to do so.

    I also dropped 8kg in 4 months, I’m back to my ideal weight/BMI, and my blood pressure has dropped.

    While I’m strongly in favor of personal choice and personal responsbility, things get trickier when you’re dealing with people addicted to substances that cause health problems we all end up paying for.

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