Soft drink, deathtrap to avoid?

Soft drinks are generally devoid of calcium and other healthful nutrients, yet they are actively marketed as safe for consumption. Nonetheless, experts debate on potential health risks of soft drinks in this report by Sade Oguntola.

In recent times, the warning of potential health risk of soft drinks came to fore. The most recent headline raised concerns that soft drinks should not be taken with Vitamin C because it can become poisonous.

Diet and regular sodas have both been linked to obesity, kidney damage, and certain cancers. Regular soft drinks have been linked to elevated blood pressure and many other chronic conditions.

Several hundred soda studies have been published over the last two decades, but most of the ones done in humans as opposed to mice or rats relied on people’s memories of what they drank.

Several studies including the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organisation (WHO) have confirmed that soft drinks containing a mixture of the salt of benzoic acid, sodium benzoate and vitamin C can cause cancer and other chronic conditions.

According to IARC, when sodium benzoate is combined with Vitamin C (as in some soft drinks and other beverages), and exposed to high temperatures or light, the IARC Group 1 cancer-causing chemical, benzene, may form.

So as individuals, especially those that drink a lot of soft drinks, what are you to make of all the headlines? Do you dismiss them, as the beverage industry does, as bad science and media hype? Or is it time to put the can down and take a hard look at what you’re drinking?

By itself, “when people consume more of this, results in weight gain and the more the weight gain, the higher the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes,” said Dr Biyi Adesina, a consultant endocrinologist, Federal Medical Centre, Abeokuta, Nigeria.

According to him “averagely, we understand that each bottle of soft drinks contains between 12 and 15 cubes of sugar. Some people, perhaps, take between two and three bottles of soft drink a day, some along with their meal instead of water.

“But, the meal when it is digested becomes glucose in the body and then you are also taking a sugar drink. So, you end up gaining weight, especially around the abdomen. Of course, this overtime increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes.”

Dr Adesina, however, declared that habitual intake of soft drinks had become a public health challenge due to Nigerians sedentary lifestyle.

“Our society is becoming more sedentary; people are exercising less and taking in more soft drinks. So it is not the drinking per se that is the challenge, rather its habitual intake without exercises.

“If you drink a bottle of soft drink in a week, this will not give you diabetes. But for some, that is there water,” he declared.

A 2010 study in the journal, Diabetes Care, had said that people who consume sugary drinks regularly, one to two cans a day or more, have a 26 per cent greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes than people who rarely take such drinks.

Also in 2012, a related study in Circulation that followed 40,000 men for two

decades found that those who take on the average one can of a sugary beverage per day had a 20 per cent higher risk  of having a heart attack or dying from a heart attack than men who rarely consumed sugary drinks.

In addition, over-consuming these sugar laden soft drinks with little nutritional value can lead to being overweight and obese, which can increase the risk of developing 11 common cancers in later life, including those of breast and prostate.

Is the preservative in soft drinks enough reason to avoid them? Are particular brands of soft drinks taking too much of the blame as poisonous when taken with Vitamin C?

Chairman, Nigerian Beverage Panel, Professor Babatunde Oguntona, explains that substances such as benzoate salts and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) are added to all soft drinks as preservatives.

But exposure to heat and light can stimulate the formation of benzene at very low levels in some beverages that contain preservatives such as benzoic acid, benzoate salts and ascorbic acid.

And they are not toxic. Any need to worry? According to Professor Oguntona: “The conditions for producing benzene are fairly extreme; this includes exposure to a temperature of at least 60 degrees centigrade and UV light. But atmospheric temperature in many places in Nigeria is far below 60 degrees centigrade.

“Even if the reaction starts, benzene as a gas migrates to the air space in the soft drink bottle. And when the bottle is released, it escapes with the Carbon monoxide that is used to produce the fizzy in it.

“People need not get hysterical about this; the way to go is to find out how much of it is consumed by people that take soft drinks. Unfortunately, we do not have any data on this in Nigeria. Also, benzoate salts and ascorbic acid are present in many foods.

“But studies in other countries, both developed and developing, conclude that the levels of benzene found in beverages to date do not pose a safety concern for consumers.”

Moreover, Professor Oguntona added “the sugar in soft drinks sometimes inhibit the production of benzene.”

Following rumours of the danger of mixing Vitamin C with soft drinks, the Federal Ministry of Health gave an assurance that both benzoic acid and Vitamin C were ingredients approved by International Food Safety regulators and used in many food and beverage products around the world.

The Health Minister, Professor Isaac Adewole said that the levels were in compliance with both the Codex and Nigeria Industrial Standards, stressing that the Coca-Cola products manufactured in Nigeria were safe for consumption.

But Mrs Sola Salako of the Consumer Advocacy Foundation said that soft drinks should be made to carry advisory warning on them.

“They need to tell us what we are taking so that we can make an informed decision; if they have been doing this from onset, everybody will say we have been told. Doing this will also make us trust its producers more,” she declared.

Vice President, Nutrition Society of Nigeria, Dr Bartholomew Brain decried habitual intake of soft drinks, which he described as “empty calories”.

Dr Brain, while discouraging taking medicines with soft drinks but rather with potable water to prevent unexpected drug-nutrient interactions, also cautioned traders against the display of soft drinks in the sun to its spoilage.

He assured that the society was coming up with a strong statement indicating its stand on consumption of soft drinks by Nigerians very soon.