A California Sugar High

Creative Common, by Tambako the Jaguar Member

By Sony Salzman
BU News Service

I remember the day when my southern California public high school stopped offering soda in the vending machines, forcing us to drive a full four blocks to 7-11 for our Diet Coke and Red Bull. At first, my fellow classmates and I were aghast … but we quickly got over it.

And, as it turns out, the push for healthier public school beverages paid off in some ways. In the last seven years, the number of young children consuming sugary drinks dropped significantly, according to a new study from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

How Much Sugar?
There are approximately 8 spoonfuls of sugar in each can of soda.

The study, produced collaboratively by the California Center for Public Health Policy,  compared two sample periods, 2005 to 2007 and 2011 to 2012. For children ages two to five years old, there was a 30 percent drop in sugary drink consumption, and for children six to 11 years old, there was a 26 percent drop.

But the drop was only seen in elementary and pre-school. The story takes a dark turn when you look at high schoolers. Although smaller children are slurping down fewer sodas, teens are gulping up energy drinks at an alarmingly fast rate. The study found an eight percent spike in soda and sugary drink consumption for California adolescents, meaning that today, more than 65 percent drink these beverages daily.

In addition, when researchers drilled down into these numbers, soda-pop consumption has remained flat, but energy drink consumption alone has shot up 23 percent. So teens are drinking just as much Coke and Pepsi as ever, and also downing Monster and Red Bull with increasing frequency.

This may not come as a surprise, as the energy drink fad has been covered extensively in the media. The UCLA study illustrates an important point, that it’s not necessarily the “energy” in these drinks that is dangerous, but rather the massive amounts of sugar that contribute to childhood obesity and diabetes. This new study quantified the problem, and provided some interesting insights into the different sub-groups with more serious sugary drink habits.

The ULCA study looked at different ethnic groups, finding that Asian teens showed the most alarming uptick, climbing from one of the lowest levels of consumption to one of the highest. Black teens reported drinking the most sugary beverages, with 74 percent downing at least one per day, and Latinos fell closely behind at 73 percent.

The energy drink craze is a serious problem for public health officials, because these drinks contain tons of calories but provide very little nutritional content. And considering that more than 30 percent of California kids are predicted to develop diabetes in their lifetime, this problem will not disappear.

Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of The California Endowment, said that these drinks “contribute half a billion empty calories a day to California’s costly childhood obesity crisis,” according to EurekaAlert.

Public health officials have made major strides in the obesity epidemic among very young children. This summer, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported a small but significant decline in obesity rates for preschoolers in 18 surveyed states, according to The San Francisco Gate.

The CDC gave due credit to state and local efforts against childhood obesity, such as California’s health department. While the progress for young children should be commended, this new UCLA study confirms that there’s a new front in the obesity battle: energy drinks among teenagers.