The Scoop on Food

Should Soda Carry a Warning Label?

Should Soda Carry a Warning Label? 37732
We all know that sugary soda offers empty calories and not much else to help children grow and develop optimally. Studies have linked soda intake with everything from poor diet quality to weight gain to an increased risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Soda intake has also been associated with an increased risk of dental caries and kidney stones. A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics also found a link between soda intake and an increased risk of aggressive behavior in young children.

Because of the purported perils associated with soda consumption, some believe they should come with a warning label. Just this week, the California Senate approved a bill that would require a label on the front of all sealed sugar-sweetened nonalcoholic beverage containers that have 75 calories or more per 12 ounces. The label would read: "STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay." Sodas that are dispensed or poured at the business premises where the beverages are purchased would be exempt from the labeling requirements.

According to the bill, referred to as SB-1000, in California alone, 19 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds, 32 percent of 6 to 11-year-olds, and 65 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds drink a sugar-sweetened beverage daily. The bill also notes there's a major disparity between races and ethnicities. It says, "74 percent of African American adolescents drink at least one sugar-sweetened beverage each day, compared to 73 percent of Latinos, 63 percent of Asians, and 56 percent of whites."

Although estimates vary, a recent study published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that, on average, Americans aged 2 and above derived 171 calories—8 percent of total calories—from sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs), the top source being soda. The study also showed that 12- to 19-year-old boys derived 12 percent of their total daily calorie intake—293 calories—from SSBs. Using national survey data of thousands of children and adults, a previous study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that while soda intake fell, intake of nontraditional SSBs rose. For example, although soda was the most heavily consumed SSB in all age groups except for children, adolescents' intake of soda dropped while heavy intake of sports/energy drinks tripled.

No matter how you slice it (or pour it), we know we should all replace some or all of the sugary soda and other nutrient-poor SSBs in our diets with more healthful drinks like water. But would having a warning label on soda containers cause parents and children to drink less soda—and would that, in turn, reduce the risk of obesity and other diet-related diseases? That's the million dollar question. Coupled with anti-soda public health campaigns, having a warning label on soda may encourage a parent or child to think twice before purchasing or drinking soda. But only time and studies would tell if the measure would prove to be effective in improving dietary intake, weight and health in the nation.

Although I agree we should all cut back on sugary soda intake, I'm not sure I agree that soda should carry a warning label. I truly believe that small portions of soda or other nutrient-poor treats like cookies, snack chips and candy can be included in an otherwise nutritious, balanced diet. Also, if we stick warning labels on soda, shouldn't we do the same for candy and other treats? What about butter? Where do we draw the line?

According to David Katz, MD, co-author of Disease Proof, "I really don't think it makes sense to put warning labels on food that is still sold as food. Once it warrants a warning label, it no longer qualifies as food."  In a post for TIME Magazine, Katz argues, "Junk (like soda) should never have been a food group in the first place. So sure, let's apply some objective method to determine what foods warrant a scarlet "J," but then let's eradicate them. It's silly to have warning labels on food we keep selling."

Whether or not warning labels on sodas and other SSBs becomes mandated in California or in other states across the country, parents can choose to skip the soda altogether and not drink it themselves or offer it to their children. Instead, they can provide their families with nutritious beverage options at home and encourage their selection at restaurants or when on-the-go.

If parents drink sugary soda themselves or allow their children to drink it, a good rule of thumb is to think of soda as a treat or dessert and to limit the frequency of consumption and to keep portion sizes small. It's also important for those who drink soda, young or old, to have it instead of—not in addition to—candy, cookies, ice cream or other foods and beverages made with a lot of added sugar to ensure they stay within calorie needs and have enough room for nutrient-rich foods.

For more tips, check out Rethinking Kids' Drinks: How to Foster Healthier Habits.

Do you think warning labels on soda are a good or bad idea?  

Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid

Image of yellow tin with a radioactive waste via shutterstock.