The Hard Truth about Soft Drinks

By Melissa Diane Smith
© Copyright 2005 by Melissa Diane Smith
This article was first published in The Natural Food Merchandiser magazine, March 2005.

Contrary to popular belief, soft drinks don't have to be the sugary, fizzy drinks we grew up with. According to the Food Lover's Companion (Barron's Educational Services, 2001) by Sharon Tyler Herbst, soft drinks are beverages that do not contain alcohol and they need not be carbonated.

A child's risk of becoming obese increases each time he adds a daily serving of sweetened soft drinks to his diet (Lancet, 2001). Drinking regular soft drinks shoots up blood sugar and insulin levels in the body (European Journal of Cancer Prevention, 1999) and high insulin levels are associated with Syndrome X, cardiovascular disease, cognitive disorders, some types of cancer and type 2 diabetes. Indeed, women who drink a daily soda not only gain weight but double their risk of diabetes (JAMA, 2004). The high-fructose corn syrup in soft drinks is most implicated in the recent rise of obesity and diabetes, which has led several health food supermarket chains to phase out all drinks that contain high-fructose corn syrup, including soda and some fruit drinks.

Diet soft drinks are the most obvious substitute but a 2004 study surprisingly found that discouraging the consumption of both sweetened and diet soft drinks reduced the percentage of school children who were overweight or obese (online British Medical Journal, April 27, 2004). Besides, diet soft drinks have no nutritive value. Plenty of other drinks are low in sugar and calories and have nutritional or health benefits to boot.

Tea Time

Tea is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world and, whether it's black, green, white, red or herbal, each type has its benefits.

Black, green and white tea are all derived from the Camelia sinesis shrub: Black comes from the fermented leaves of the plant, green from unfermented leaves and white from the first few leaves and bud, dried naturally in the sun. Tea has naturally occurring caffeine, but without the sugar found in colas. Black tea has the most caffeine, followed by green tea, followed by white tea. But all three can be found in decaffeinated versions.

Tea also contains polyphenols, which are powerful antioxidants that protect the body from free radicals. Tea consumption consistently increases the antioxidant capacity of the blood (Journal of Nutrition, 2003). White tea contains the greatest concentration of antioxidants, followed by green tea, then black tea.

Epidemiological studies suggest that tea drinking is associated with reduced cancer and cardiovascular disease risk. Tea may protect heart health by improving blood vessel function (Journal of Nutrition, 2003). Also, catechins, the polyphenols in higher amounts in green tea, may have anti-obesity effects (International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, 2002).

Another possible benefit of tea: Animal studies suggest that tea helps protect against the formation of dental caries (International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 2003). Soft drinks, as most of us know, are associated with significantly higher levels of dental caries (Pediatrics, 2003).

Another "tea" growing in popularity is a red tea called rooibos (pronounced ROY-boss), which comes from an herb unique to South Africa. The tea contains no caffeine, making it an ideal choice for people who get insomnia or the jitters from caffeine. Rooibos also is chock full of antioxidants and, according to several animal studies, it has liver-protective effects (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2003).

Herbal tea is not a true tea (derived from tea-shrub leaves) but rather an infusion of various herbs, flowers, fruit and spices. Some of the herbs, such as peppermint and chamomile, have real medicinal benefits. Specialty teas are tea flavored with various floral or spice ingredients such as jasmine blossoms, lemon or orange peel, cinnamon or vanilla. As long as sugar, honey, maple syrup or other sweeteners aren't listed in their ingredients, they are sugar-free and calorie-free.

For customers looking to grab a quick drink in place of soda on the way out of your store, their best bets are ready-to-drink teas in bottles from your refrigerated section or from your shelves - or instant tea powder that they can mix in water. As customers warm up to the idea of drinking tea in place of soda, encourage them to try new flavors and buy tea bags or loose tea to make their own iced tea.

Tea drinking can be encouraged in kids if it's made fun. With young children, especially young girls, parents (or daycare workers, for that matter) can set aside a time after school as "tea time" when kids try different teas and chat with friends or parents. Girls tend to love this grown-up ritual - and it can work equally well with different varieties of iced or hot teas.

Making Waves with Water

Water is both sugar- and calorie-free and the only drink that's a nutrient all by itself. As a retailer, you have the opportunity to offer bottled water that's a step above much of the water sold in bottles in conventional supermarkets.

High-calcium mineral water is an especially good beverage to stock on your shelf. Many Americans have difficulty meeting their daily calcium needs and research shows that calcium from calcium-rich mineral water is highly usable - at least as bioavailable, and possibly more so, than the calcium in dairy products (Osteoporosis International, 2000).

For customers who miss the fizz of soft drinks, sparkling water is a great alternative. It's often flavored with different fruit essences to give a tinge of sweetness without the sugar.

Switching from sugary soda to sugar-free water, sparkling mineral water or unsweetened iced tea can result in dramatic weight loss, which I've seen in my clinical practice. But it's usually difficult to have kids make a change to sugar-free drinks all at once. That's when baby steps are in order: Suggest that your customers use fruit-juice-and-sparkling-water sodas or juice-tea drinks to start their children and teenagers on the road to better wellness. Then they should gradually thin those drinks out with an increasing amount of sparkling mineral water or water as their kids’ tastes for sugar lessen.

We all grew up with soda, which is one of the ways Americans started developing problems with obesity and diabetes. But you'll be doing your part to help solve those problems by offering and creatively marketing sugar-free alternatives to soda, including tea, rooibos, water, mineral water and sparkling water.
AgainstThe Grain Nutrition

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