Soda remains a popular drink across society. When our children have a birthday party, it’s usually everywhere.
Meal deals at different restaurants include it. It’s heavily promoted and sponsors most significant sporting events. It’s ever-present in our lives. But just what does soda do to your body?
Here are 10 ways that soda (and sugar in general) are harming health.
1Effects of Soda on Teeth: Enamel Damage
One of the negative effects of sugar is encouraging the growth of harmful bacteria in the mouth.
These bacterias use sugar from our diet to produce acids that can harm the teeth. These acids can result in damage to the surface of our tooth enamel.
But sugar isn’t the only reason soda consumption is bad for your teeth. It also contains an ingredient known as phosphoric acid.
Phosphoric acid has a low PH level and is very acidic. On acidity level alone, it is capable of eroding tooth enamel.
This isn’t surprising when we consider phosphoric acid is used industrially as a rust-removal agent.
Another side effect is that it lowers the PH level of saliva in the mouth, allowing bacteria to form and grow more easily.
The research on soda regarding dental health is damning.
In one study, healthy teeth were exposed to individual beverages to measure erosion levels. All drinks were erosive, with full-sugar sodas producing greater lesion depths than diet soda and fruit juices (1).
In a further study of 3,773 adults, 80% had evidence of tooth erosion. Consumption of fruit drinks high in fructose was significantly associated with the severity of this erosion (2).
Soda causes damage to our teeth – sugar and phosphoric acid are both erosive.
2Soda and Obesity
Another of the harmful effects of soda is that the sugar content promotes obesity.
Looking specifically at Cola, a typical medium serving contains 43g sugar in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (2).
Drinking this much free fructose is more than our body is equipped to handle. The result is that blood sugar (and insulin) quickly spikes, and the sugar gets stored as fat by the liver (in the form of triglycerides).
In order to determine the impact of sugar-sweetened beverages on obesity, researchers undertook a large-scale review appearing in the British Medical Journal. This study analyzed 30 randomized controlled studies and 38 prospective cohort studies.
The findings from the review strongly suggest that intake of sugar-sweetened beverages is a key determinant of body weight. Groups drinking the largest amount showed significantly higher rates of obesity (3).
A study looking at strategies to reduce obesity and type 2 diabetes had similar findings. Their data showed that a 40% added-sugar reduction in beverages would lead to 500,000 fewer cases of obesity in the UK over a 5-year period (4).
A 40% reduction is significant, but if we care about our health, then we should be looking for a 100% reduction.
Soda contains significant amounts of sugar and research shows strong associations with obesity.
3Sugary Drinks Increase Triglyceride Levels
One effect of excess sugar on the body is to increase circulating levels of triglycerides.
When your body has more energy than it needs from a source of sugar, blood sugar levels spike, and insulin is released. As a result, this insulin encourages the liver to convert excess sugars into triglycerides.
Excess fructose from sugar-sweetened beverages causes non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. A study investigating NAFLD using patients with the disease concluded that: “soft drink consumption is the most common risk factor for NAFLD” (8).
NAFLD is strongly associated with high levels of triglycerides (9).
Consuming excess sugar from sweetened beverages causes higher triglyceride levels – a major risk factor for cardiovascular heart disease.
4Caramel Coloring: Can it Cause Cancer?
Some soft drinks such as cola contain caramel coloring.
Created by the high-heat treatment of carbohydrates (caramelization), caramel has a flavor similar to burnt sugar. The use of caramel in cola has two effects: the iconic color of cola and as a flavor enhancer.
Unfortunately, there are some dangers of caramel coloring in soda. Controversy exists because there are links between caramel coloring and cancer.
Researchers at the John Hopkins Center, Baltimore, found that soda samples contained 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), a possible human carcinogen formed during manufacture of caramel (10).
Commenting on the study, the senior author stated: “Soft drink consumers are being exposed to an avoidable and unnecessary cancer risk from an ingredient that is being added to beverages simply for aesthetic purposes.”
A 2015 study also looking at MEI found that MEI concentrations found in soda samples considerably varied. Some contained significantly higher amounts than average, incurring higher cancer risk (11).
The results show that the commonly known dangers of sugar are not the only thing we need to consider when it comes to soda consumption.
Some sodas (such as cola) contain additives that are possibly carcinogenic to humans.
5Phosphoric Acid Decreases Bone Mass Density
We briefly covered phosphoric acid earlier regarding the impact it has on teeth.
However, this acid has more far-reaching effects on the body than solely dental health.
Phosphoric acid is an anti-nutrient, meaning that it can inhibit absorption of nutrients by the body. Calcium absorption, in particular, is hindered by phosphoric acid.
It is not surprising therefore that cola consumption is associated with the lowest bone mass density in older women (12).
If you’ve ever wondered where phosphoric acid comes from, then food grade phosphoric acid is an industrial chemical.
Often made in China, there are two alternate ways of making it; the wet method, and the thermal method.
As seen in the photo above, apparently the thermal method contains a much lower proportion of arsenic. Nice and reassuring, isn’t it?
Phosphoric acid inhibits calcium absorption and has links to lower bone mass density.
6Artificial Sweeteners in Soda May Cause Health Problems
So you know why sugar is bad for you and want to avoid it? Perhaps diet soda is the way forward then?
Not so fast; there is a wealth of research on the damaging effects of artificial sweeteners too.
Four of the most commonly found artificial sweeteners are aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame-K, and sucralose, and all of them have dangers.
Many people believe that ‘diet’ versions of soda are the healthier option due to their lack of sugar. Studies seem to disagree with this notion.
A 2008 study of 1250 individuals showed that drinking 21 artificially-sweetened beverages per week doubled the risk of obesity compared to those drinking zero (13).
A study from 2013 looked at a total sample size of 66,118 women and found that the highest drinkers of ASB had increased risk. The authors stated that while the results were strongly significant, further randomized trials are necessary (14).
Saccharin can induce bladder cancer in animal experiments, and heavy use in humans increases risk (15).
A study from July 2016 found that non-nutritive sweeteners, although calorie free, increase the urge to eat. This urge comes from the sweet taste and makes us prone to weight gain through eating too much (16).
There are also various studies linking aspartame to some cancers and damage to the gut microbiome.
Artificial sweeteners don’t contain sugar, but this doesn’t make them safe.
7Soda Has No Important Nutrients
Soda may be tasty, it may be refreshing, it may even help you feel good – but it’s not nutritious.
In addition, there is no biological need to drink soda. It contains no essential vitamins or minerals; only sugar.
The soda industry and its lobbyists like to claim that science fails to establish soda as directly causational of harm to human subjects.
I’ve never really understood this statement because we can’t put a bunch of people in a lab, fill them with soda for years and see what happens.
But in response to this, we can ask: “What does sugar do to our body?”
Does it have any benefits to health? None.
Soda has no nutritional value whatsoever; there is nothing beneficial about it.
8Drinking Soda Increases Diabetes Risk
The evidence is clear on this one; the more soda you drink, the more likely you are to get diabetes.
A massive study that included 310,989 participants found that those in the highest quartile of soda consumption had a 26% increased risk of diabetes (19).
This ‘higher quartile’ of soda consumption usually stood at around 1-2 cans per day.
Harvard Medical School recently published a study with a conclusive statement on soda and obesity-related disease.
The author stated that there is sufficient scientific evidence that decreasing the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages will reduce the prevalence of obesity-related disease (20).
A 2015 study found that sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and fruit juice both impacted diabetes risk. Habitual consumption of these drinks was associated with increased diabetes risk, independently of being overweight or not (21).
It’s pretty clear that if we don’t want a diabetes diagnosis, then we don’t want to be drinking soda or fruit juice.
Several recent studies and hundreds of past studies all link sugar-sweetened beverages to increased diabetes risk.
9Soda and Sugar Addiction
After we get a hit of sugar, the reward center in our brain responds by increasing dopamine levels.
This dopamine release gives us a pleasurable feeling – one that we want to feel again and again.
As soda and sugar-sweetened beverages are the biggest sugar contributors to our daily diet, it’s not surprising that many people can’t live without their daily soda fix.
This feel-good factor amplifies the harmful effects of soda.
Instead of just having an occasional drink, many people have difficulty moderating their intake and can’t seem to give up.
The best thing to do is avoid them, and let the cravings slowly subsist.
Replace soda with a healthier drink of your choice; ideally water, black coffee or some tea.
A halfway compromise could be a drink like a latte.
Latte contains natural sugar from the milk but also has beneficial nutrients and antioxidants from the coffee.
Later, this could then be replaced by black coffee a few weeks later.
Sugar is hard to give up and in some people, “sugar withdrawal” is a very real phenomenon.
10Soda Increases Heart Disease Risk
Does anyone remember those old Dr. Pepper advertisements that asked, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Well, growing research suggests the answer to that question might be heart disease.
Dozens of studies link soda consumption to increased heart disease risk.
In a prospective cohort study of 42,883 men, those in the upper quartile for sugar consumption had a 20% higher rate of heart disease than the lower quartile. However, this same link did not exist for artificially sweetened beverages (24).
A study of 2696 middle-aged people in the US and the UK showed that just one daily serve of soda raises blood pressure, an independent cardiovascular risk factor (25).
88,520 women from the Nurses Study were followed, and their dietary habits analyzed. The findings show that regular consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages associates with higher cardiovascular risk in women.
This association stays significant even after adjustment for weight, energy intake, diabetes incidence and other unhealthy lifestyle or dietary factors (26).
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends consuming less than 450 soda calories per week to reduce the risk of heart disease (27).
For anyone who truly cares about their health, that recommendation should be zero calories.
Several studies say that sugar increases the risk for cardiovascular heart disease independently of other risk factors.
Just how bad is soda for you?
Well, just to quickly review we can see that soda:
- Damages teeth
- Promotes obesity
- Can increase triglycerides
- Sometimes contains potential carcinogens
- Often contains phosphoric acid, which is linked to lower bone mass density
- Contains artificial sweeteners with questionable safety records
- Does not have any beneficial nutrients
- Consumption has close ties to diabetes prevalence
- Can be addictive for many people
- Is linked to increased risk of heart disease in many studies.
The only question that comes to mind is this: why would anyone still drink this stuff?