The Truth About Sugar Drinks

What do you know about sweetened drinks? You may have heard that they are bad for you, but how bad, and why, and is it true?


When you think of sugar drinks, you probably think of carbonated sodas like Coca-Cola and 7Up. Those sodas are basically sugar in water with artificial flavorings, acids, and gases to make the bubbles. That doesn’t sound healthy, but did you know that most fruit juices and energy drinks are no better? According to this New York Times article, 12 ounces of orange juice has 9 teaspoons of sugar and 160 calories, about the same as 12 ounces of canned soda.

That 9-teaspoon figure is for pure juice, or 100% juice. Many products marketed as juice, such as Snapple, have even higher concentrations of sugar.

If you think energy drinks might be better, they’re usually worse. According to a report in the UK Daily Mail, about half of energy drinks are as sweet as or sweeter than Coca-Cola, and some contain the equivalent of 20 teaspoons of sugar in one 16-ounce can. The sugar may be in the form of dextrose, a simple sugar like glucose, but these days it’s often made of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Some people think HFCS is worse than plain old sugar, but they both cause your blood sugar to spike.

Health crusaders are treating sugar drinks as Public Enemy #1. Several cities and states have put extra taxes on sugar drinks to limit sales. Since poorer people tend to consume more sweet drinks than wealthier people, this tax is mostly paid by low-income consumers.

But are sugar drinks really that bad for you? Some of the danger may be overstated. Studies show that consuming one 12-ounce can a day of sugary soda or juice increases the risk of getting diabetes or heart disease by about 20%. According to one report, sugar drinks might be responsible for about 130,000 new cases of Type 2 diabetes a year. That’s bad, but it’s out of a total of 1.7 million new cases per year.

In my opinion, that’s really not such a huge increased risk. If you’re healthy and can limit yourself to one can a day (a big “if”), you may have more important things to worry about. On the other hand, a person who goes through a six-pack a day probably needs to change, and the sooner the better.

People who already have diabetes are different. We know our bodies can’t handle sugar. Unless you can accurately dose yourself with insulin before you drink, your sugar will spike. Your cells will be exposed to damaging levels of glucose. Even if you do inject fast-acting insulin, you will be increasing insulin resistance.

Other problems with sugar drinks:

• They fool your system. Our bodies are normally good at keeping track of what we eat. If you eat more calories than you need, you won’t be hungry for a long time. Sugar drinks fool this system. According to Dr. Christopher Ochner, assistant professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, our bodies don’t recognize calories in liquids as well as those in solid food, so you’ll keep eating more than you need.

• They’re bad for your teeth. Sugar feeds bacteria in the mouth that cause tooth decay, and the added acids in many sugar drinks wear away tooth enamel. In poor families who feed their kids a lot of juice, you sometimes see all of someone’s teeth being lost before they reach 40.

We know that diabetes can be extremely hard on your teeth, so they don’t need the extra burden of sugar drinks.

• Sugar drinks are associated with increased risk of cancer and of dementia. According to this article from the Icelandic site Authority Nutrition, people who drink more sodas also have higher levels of gout, a painful and disabling condition.

• Most sugar drinks have practically zero nutritional value aside from energy. Energy is good, but our bodies need more than that. They need vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other good things. You can get those from plant foods or animal foods, but not from soda or juice.

What do you think? Do you drink fruit juice, sodas, or energy drinks? How do they seem to affect you? Have you tried to stop, and how has that gone for you?

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  • Samwell Baggins

    The biggest shock to me when changing my diet was to find that good old orange juice was not healthy for me at all. I argued at first with my educator, but she said that all the beneficial elements from fruits were processed out and that it is better to eat the whole edible orange/grapefruit/apple because of the fiber and other good things. My brother-in-law fought with me recently saying that I was crazy to state that drinking OJ was not healthy, but I did not fight back. I cited expertise other than my own.

    Consuming 1.5 liters of cola and 40 ounces of McD’s sweetened tea daily over two years contributed largely to my 60-pound weight gain, and cutting out those sugary drinks was instrumental in losing that same weight. Water and unsweetened tea are my drinks of choice now. After cutting out excess sugar in my entire diet, colas don’t even taste good now. Because I have good BG control, I can drink a few ounces of orange juice or lemonade, but never the 20-ounce mass quantities I did before.

  • Corinne Marie

    What are good drinks?

    • RAWLCM

      Water is best. Decaffeinated tea and coffee aren’t too bad if you don’t sweeten them. Same with herbal teas, although be cautious as many have medicinal effects that need to be taken into account. If you must sweeten your beverage, a tiny bit of sugar is better for you than any artificial sweetener I know. It’s easy to get used to less.
      Alcoholic beverages are pretty much all high in carbs, (alcohol is made from sugar) but one a day is usually acceptable and possibly even beneficial to heart health, but avoid them if you’re taking any medicine that warns against using alcohol.

    • tnlib

      Water with a little fresh lemon juice.

      • Icancounttopoo

        what if you get physically ill with water. I double over in pain from plain water or flavored with lemon or lime. I get sweats, and vomit. I have always been like this with water.

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages can be enjoyed in moderation, just as with other sources of calories. These beverages are not a unique risk factor for complex health conditions. Rather, it’s overall diet balanced with activity that matters. What’s more, today the marketplace is replete with beverage choices in an array of calorie counts and sizes. This allows consumers to pick and choose the products they prefer, and incorporate them into a sensible diet and active life. We would also add that low-calorie sweeteners are condoned by leading health organizations, such as the American Diabetes Association, which has said: “Foods and drinks that use artificial sweeteners are another option that may help curb your cravings for something sweet.”
    -American Beverage Association