by Marion Nestle
Dec 15 2009

Sodas, sweetened and not

The research demonstrating the not-so-great effects of sodas just pours in, as it were.  The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has two new research reports, one on justification for taxation of soft drinks, and the other on the negative effects of soft drinks on kids’ health.

David Ludwig writes in JAMA that artificially sweetened drinks are unlikely to help the situation.  They just make people want sweeter foods.

And the New York City Health Department has put its anti-soda campaign online.   This is its controversial “drinking fat” campaign designed to make the point that excess calories from sugary soft drinks will put on the pounds.  Why controversial?  Take a look at the cute guy demonstrating the drinking-fat point on the YouTube video.

What’s your take on this?

  • Artificially-sweetened foods don’t make me want *sweeter* foods, but they do make me want more sweet foods if I’m already hungry. Probably has something to do with the fact that artificially-sweetened foods cause the same sort of insulin reaction that leads to hunger that normal sweets do.

  • @Ryan, if everything has sweetener in it, because we can now put artificial sources with low or no calories added, we become accustomed to a base level of sweetness that then forces us to seek out sweeter things to satisfy our craving for a sweet thing.

  • WOW, the public service ad from the NYC Health Department really gets your attention! Kudos to them for taking a risk. I won’t forget that ad or the message anytime soon.

  • Emily

    This isn’t the first we’ve heard on the correlation between articicially sweetened soft drinks and weight. I suspect there will turn out to be a pretty conclusive link, possibly even causality, when all the study-dust has settled. I don’t know if it’s the sweetener triggering our desire for more sweet things or simply the fact that those chemical agents aren’t actually FOOD.

  • Johannes G

    Emily, its easy to say that there’s a causative link, but you have to remember that too much of anything will be no good. The end of the story is that if you consume excess calories, you will gain weight. It doesn’t matter if those excess calories are carbs, fats, or proteins. What is important to remember is that added sugar represents empty calories and broken foods – calories which aren’t attached to other vital nutrients such as minerals and vitamins. While there are varying reports, its important to remember that artificially added vitamins aren’t necessarily always equal to naturally occurring vitamins.

    That said, kudos to NYC for taking a stance and not being wimps about it.

  • Jennifer

    Reading the comments under the video makes it pretty clear that people still don’t have any kind of understanding about the health implications of “drinking calories.” Several comments implied that soda can’t make you fat because it doesn’t contain fat. So much more than an ad is needed to educate folks about diet as it relates to health.

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  • Chris Nelson

    There’s a good study on this from Harvard earlier this year by Dr. Walter Willett called “Time to Focus on Healthier Drinks” (

    He talks about the idea of retraining American palates to appreciate less sweet foods.

  • gd

    notice how the dairy lobby got low-fat milk in on the good side for the ad? even though 8oz of milk is actually more calories than an 8oz pepsi!!!!

    seltzer, water and plain tea are all great calorie free drinks.
    i cant believe they snuck milk in there……

  • Emily

    I do agree, Johann– note that I haven’t said that there is a cause-effect relationship. I only suspect it will ultimately be found to be so.

    The dangerous part of artifically sweetened soft drinks is that they are often “no-calorie,” (I’m not actually clear on what that means, precisely) so people feel free to indulge. But there have been several studies I know of in which there is a correlation between consumption of diet soft drinks and higher rates of overweight. Causation hasn’t been shown by any means, but I do suspect it’s there.

    The causative effect of sugar- and HFCS-sweetened drinks is quite clear, though– as you say, too much of ANYTHING, especially something high in calories and low in nutrients is clearly going to make anyone fat.

  • Chris

    I do not believe this is that true. I mean sure sugary soda is not the best choice. But it is all about calories in vs calories out. I never drink soda, I have never really liked the taste. To me it seems like an ad campaign produced by the milk company. If they requested us to New Yorkers to substitute anything instead of a calorie laden sugary soda, I would recommend green tea.

  • Anthro

    Why should the ad be controversial, other than the suggestion to drink low-fat milk? Milk can have its place in a decent diet, but drinking it all the time as a “beverage” is as silly as anything else. I limit my milk to 6 oz/day in my latte in order to stay in my caloric limit. Of course, I sometimes have more–in soup or some other food, but the real issue is why do people feel the constant need for a “beverage”? That brings us back to MARKETING. It’s another created “need” brought to you by Madison Avenue and the “beverage” industry.

  • rjm

    All things considered, soda is a prime junk food consumed by many Americans and thus is one, of many sources, that contributes to the growing problem of being overweight and/or obese. So while there are other foods which serve as enablers of such a problem, sodas are one of the key foods which allow people to easily exceed their caloric requirements. Thus, technical criticisms aside(such as, one soda a day “can” contribute up to 10 pounds of fat if and only if it exceeds your caloric requirements), it is sound advice for those that don’t know any better, when it comes to nutrition, to just weed sodas out of their diet. Though, I suppose that is debatable, considering some of the comments already made in the comments section of the video(e.g., soda has sugar and no fat in it, therefore, it can’t make you fat).

  • It think its great to see something out there to combat all those soda ads, but as with so many messages about healthier food, I wonder what kind of impact it will actually have. I think its ok to have low fat, or preferably skim milk in there, it at least has some additional nutritional value.

  • Marc Brazeau

    1. It’s a great ad, except for the fact that the cute guy is hardly cautionary.

    2. I believe that soda is about to become the cigarettes of nutrition. It’s not as simple as calories in / calories out and too much of anything will make you fat.

    A) Beverages don’t trigger satiety because we evolved drinking water which we don’t consume for energy we consume for hydration. Sodas fake out our system and we can consume endless calories that way.

    B) Very little has be done to look at the effect of high fructose corn syrup vs. sugar because the nutritional community looked at it and said 45/55 sucrose to fructose is pretty much the same thing as 50/50 nothing to see here, move on. That’s bad science. That could be very significant from an endocrinological perspective. The correlation between the advent of HFCS and the obsesity epidemic suggests as much.

    C) We are seeing more evidence on the addictive properties of highly processed food. Watch the “before” diets of Biggest Loser contestants or the people profiled in any article about big weight loss and they eating almost entirely highly processed junk food. No one becomes obese gorging themselves on fresh fruits and vegetable, whole grains and natural meats and cheeses.

    3, The low fat milk thing will just not die. The one study that I’m aware of showed that consumption of low fat and skim milk by kids correlated with overweight and obesity while whole milk consumption did not. The research surmised that the fact that the nutrient milk fat works on your thyroid to stimulate lean muscle production. Low fat and skim milk have a greater percentage of sugar calories. At a gut level, whole milk is as nature constituted it while removing the fat is our attempt to monkey with it to make it more nutritional, something we don’t have a great track record with, trans fat margarine comes to mind.

  • Kate

    Soda companies spend millions to link soda to good feelings.

    We need to fight twice as hard as the soda companies do to link soda to fat. That’s why this is a spectacular ad. Now we need gobs more along these lines.

    The milk issue is beside the point. It’s all about raising the bar of public health.

  • Stephanie

    I thought the ad was great — excellent graphic illustration of the correlation between too much sugary pop and what it really means to the body, which is fat. It’s easy for non-obese people to argue the merits of a healthy beverage, like milk, against pop, whether it’s sugar or diet.. the fact is, we have an obesity problem in this country and let’s get started on it. Seriously.

  • One soda a day will cause you to gain 10 pounds in one year?…Probably for someone who does not workout regularly. I am pretty sure they are probably eating something else that is helping them to gain weight too.

  • I grew up without having sodas (of any kind) in our home. Today I am really grateful for that. It simply never became an item on my list of ‘wants’. It is so much about habit and availability.

    It is really scary to think about how many empty calories are consumed in this way and how much it contributes to obesity. It is unfortunate that consumers continue to mindlessly buy these drinks, not giving the long term effects one thought. Hopefully more campaigns will follow to help with education.