Confusion continues over ‘sugary drinks’ while ‘unsugary’ ones get an undeserved pass

Posted by
August 21, 2012

With the media still focused on the latest attempts at banning so-called “sugary drinks,” kicked off by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the end of May, a new report, with possibly much bigger implications for kids, slipped by with just a fraction of the Bloomberg press attention.

The study, published this August in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that kids are drinking more artificially sweetened beverages than ever, twice as much as ten years ago –  an “unexpected” finding according to one of the researchers.

Rising adult consumption trends were looked at as well, and it was found that 25 percent of adults in 2008 said they had consumed a diet drink in the past day, versus 19 percent in 2000.

While the researchers didn’t take a stand on the potential adverse effects of children consuming larger quantities of artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, senior researcher Dr. Miriam B. Vos, of Emory University was quoted in a Reuters article as saying  “there are no studies that have looked at the long-term health effects of artificial sweeteners in growing children.”

If Mayor Bloomberg gets his way, the numbers of kids downing artificially sweetened sodas may double again. That’s because Bloomberg, in his campaign against supersize “sugary drinks,” which in reality are syrupy drinks – as in high fructose corn syrup – would exempt artificially sweetened ones in his big-size soda ban, a little fact that didn’t get much attention amid all the hoopla over the announcement.

The whole sticky confusion over the difference between high fructose corn syrup and real sugar has traveled far and wide, having originated it appears, with none other than the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Calling “sugary drinks” a “consumer-tested message,” John S. Webster, director of Public and Governmental affairs for the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, also told us that “the term ‘sugary drinks’ is not a defined term.”  It was chosen to “convey the idea” of drinks that contain “added sugars” – meaning any beverage sweetened with ingredients listed in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which includes honey, molasses, corn sweetener, and high fructose corn syrup, for example,” he said.

And  Dr. Vos, senior researcher in the August study and assistant professor of pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine, has managed to carry the confusion even further.

How’s that again?

In a video at her university page called “Sugar: too much for our kids,” she starts out by saying “sugar is under a lot of different names on food. Some of the common ones would be sucrose, sugar, cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup (and) corn sugar is a newer one that’s being used…”

The “corn sugar,” to which Dr. Vos refers was the “new name” that the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) had hoped to officially confer on HFCS, a plan that fell apart when the Food and Drug Administration rejected the CRA petition at the end of May. And in doing so, the FDA made an official and clear distinction between HFCS and real sugar, a difference apparently too difficult for most in the media to comprehend (to say nothing of researchers such as Dr, Vos, who perhaps haven’t been following the latest developments).

But while there may still be a great deal of confusion about the meaning of terms like “sugar,” “sugars,” and “sugary” in the coverage of the controversy over the slurping of soft drinks, that reported rise in the consumption of artificially sweetened ones may well be a ‘side effect’ of all the hype, one that appears to have fallen through the cracks of public concern. And that could be an most unfortunate oversight.

Just consider, for example how aspartame – still the leading synthetic sweetener in most diet beverages and other products – was described in a 2010 story posted at the Citizens for Health website about a call by New Zealand non-governmental health organizations for artificially sweetened beverages to be curtailed, and replaced with those containing natural sweeteners:

“Aspartame has been linked to many health symptoms, including those expressed as ADHD, anxiety, depression, irritability, confusion, memory loss, insomnia, dizziness, migraines, cramps, abdominal pain, numbness or tingling of extremities, rashes, chronic fatigue, and sight and personality changes.”

If Mayor Bloomberg and other like-minded officials are genuinely sincere about limiting the health risks to both children and adults posed by the guzzling of supersized sodas, a little research into the subject would tell them that they really ought to include those “large, unsugary drinks” as well.