American Beverage Association uses CDC data in its own version of ‘spin the bottle’

Posted by
August 6, 2013

With Americans putting on weight at a record rate, big beverage companies are always looking for ways to justify that the hyper-consumption of sodas and other beverages, most all sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, are not a contributing factor in the current obesity epidemic.

The Coca-Cola Company, for example, refers to what you will get downing 12 ounces of its flagship, HFCS-sweetened product as “140 happy calories,” and shows how you can easily burn them off doing “extra happy activities.” Coke’s “be OK” commercials, one of which was recently banned in the UK for being misleading, is said by the company as one of the ways they are addressing “obesity head-on.”

But the numbers are certainly not on their side, with one-third of adult men and women in the U.S. considered obese, morbid obesity now off the charts, and childhood obesity having more than doubled in the last 30 years.

So when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued some newly crunched numbers via its National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) about the consumption of sweetened foods and beverages among U.S. adults, it hit a happy note with the American Beverage Association (ABA), trade group for “Big Bev.”

In fact, the ABA could barely contain its enthusiasm in reporting on the NCHS “data brief” number 122 at its “Sip & Savor” blog last month, which it interpreted to mean that “…a mere 4.33 percent of average daily calories among adults can be attributed to beverages,” and that “when you do the math, singling out soft drinks for obesity in America doesn’t add up.”

Wow! Even I thought that only 4.33 percent of average daily calorie consumption from soda and other beverages was pretty amazing, So I thought I would do the math as they suggested. I calculated that in a 1,500-calorie diet, that would work out to a meager 65 calories a day, and that for a 2,000-calorie a day diet, it would come to 86.6 calories. Since that 12-ounce Coke, to cite but one example, contains 140 calories (and that’s just one serving), whatever became, I couldn’t help wondering, of the rest of those calories from one or more– perhaps quite a few more soft drinks?

Setting out to investigate this astonishing revelation, I made some calls, the first one right to the source, Dr. Bethene Ervin, the lead author of CDC data brief number 122.

How the ABA arrived at the 4.33 beverage-calories per day was by taking the paper’s “on average” 13 percent of calories in the diet of middle income adults (because as income level goes down, the number goes up) that come from added “sugars” (meaning all added caloric sweeteners, including the ubiquitous HFCS *).  Of that 13 percent, “one third comes from beverages, roughly four percent of the calories,” Dr. Ervin said.

But, Dr. Ervin added, that figure doesn’t account for “the peak group,” those that consume the most sweetened beverages — adolescents and young adults. Since the ABA-quoted number was for adults aged 22 to 85, and because sweetener intake decreases as you age, “you’re averaging them both out, so the effect is being washed out.  The (number) is being diminished by averaging in the group that’s consuming less, which is the older age group,” she said. And while Dr. Ervin thought the ABA number was technically correct, she acknowledged “the U.S. population is consuming a large amount (of caloric beverages)” and that adults and especially kids are well over the dietary guidelines.

Quick, easy and diluted data

My next stop was to contact  the ABA itself. Spokesperson Chris Gindlesperger was more than happy to talk about the figure, saying this is all “part of the story we are trying to tell. When you actually look at the data…it doesn’t match up to the rhetoric from some of the folks that believe caloric beverages are driving the obesity issue.”

Gindlesperger said the 4.33-calorie number sounded quite reasonable to him, and when I asked how it all panned out when just one HFCS-sweetened soda would take you over the top of that figure, he responded, “you’re right, but I don’t thinks that’s a ‘gotcha’ moment or anything.”

But then, Gindlesperger added another little factoid that seemed to substantially revise the entire equation: it seems fifty percent of the ABA member company sales are “diet” or zero calorie beverages, so “you’re talking about half the market with no calories.”

Dr. Ervin’s data brief number 122, Consumption of Added Sugars Among U.S. Adults, 2005 – 2010 derives it figures from the National Health & Nutritional Examination Survey, commonly referred to as NHANES, an ongoing, yearly health survey of the U.S. population.

Based on census data, NHANES looks at several thousand selected people around the country each year who are compensated for undergoing a variety of medical tests and interviews, which includes a “dietary recall.” The data are used in developing health policies and programs, and basically all the places where you’ll find statistics about the U.S. population’s dietary habits or health.

While Dr. Ervin may know exactly where her figures are coming from and what they may mean in the scheme of things, she maintained that what the ABA is doing  is “making a statement from my report… (which) by adding groups in … dilutes the impact of it if you just looked at young adults.”

The CDC “data briefs,” which are printed and all ready to fold and mail, are something Dr. Ervin speculated were designed to be “quick and easy for policy and political people,” and a fast way to get “information out to the media.”

But not all such “information” is as cut and dried as it may seem, which may make it possible for some parties to to play ‘fast and loose’ with this sort of data — something that became even more apparent when I spoke with Christie Munsell, a research associate and nutritionist at the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Munsell said she was “not really surprised” to hear that “they are being creative with how they are reporting these findings.” But she took the most exception with the ABA’s statement  that “when you do the math, singling out soft drinks for obesity in America doesn’t add up,” noting that everything else could be factual —  they are just quoting from the CDC report — but I think that just this one calculation can’t justify that sentence.”

So while the ABA  may be accurately quoting those statistical numbers from the CDC, it somehow just doesn’t add up. Or perhaps we should simply think of it as Big Bev’s attempt to play “spin the bottle.”


*For an explanation of why all caloric sweeteners are called “sugars” see Five big things that are wrong with the nutrition facts label.