October 16, 2009

Obesity and Soda: How Much do Americans Drink?

Brent Kim

Brent Kim

Project Officer, Food Production & Public Health

Center for a Livable Future

An op-ed in the October 7th Wall Street Journal by Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent inspired me to do some fact-checking. In the article, “Coke Didn’t Make America Fat, Americans need more exercise, not another tax,” Mr. Kent defended his industry as being an easy target in the debate over obesity and its cause: “Sugar-sweetened beverages have been singled out in spite of the fact that soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and sweetened bottled water combined contribute 5.5% of the calories in the average American diet, according to the National Cancer Institute.”

While I’ve yet to confirm or refute Mr. Kent’s claim, his 5.5% figure seems extremely low compared to estimates from recent research.  According to a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, soft drinks alone contributed an estimated seven percent of total caloric intake in the average U.S. diet.  A 2004 study out of UC Berkeley, drawing from the same data, found soft drinks were the top contributor to U.S. caloric intake at 7.1%, followed by “cake, sweet rolls, donuts and pastries” at 3.6%.

There is a tremendous disparity between these figures and Mr. Kent’s alleged estimate from the National Cancer Institute, suggesting the latter may underrepresent the contribution of soft drinks to obesity in the U.S.  

A representative from the National Cancer Institute was not aware of the 5.5% estimate, though this does not disprove its validity. 

It is worth noting that calories may not be the only factor in measuring the impact of soft drink consumption on obesity: a recent study out of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health suggests that consuming calories in liquid form may be a greater contributor to obesity than consuming an equal amount of calories in solid form.

For the counterpoint, the video below argues against the proposed tax on soft drinks.  It was paid for by the Americans Against Food Taxes, a coalition of “concerned citizens” that includes the Coca Cola Bottling Co., Yum! Brands Inc., Burger King Corporation and Cargill Inc., among others.

-Brent Kim


  1. Posted by Lauren Gibbons

    Great points. I’d like to add that even if sugar-sweetened beverages do, in fact, represent only 5.5% of daily caloric intake for the average American (110 calories for a person eating 2000 calories per day) – the important point is that the average person does not compensate for these extra 110 calories by eating less. In other words, instead of representing a slice of the proverbial caloric pie, sugar-sweetened beverages tend to enlarge the pie. So although 5.5% or 7% of daily caloric intake may sound like a relatively small amount, because they tend to be EXTRA calories, they can quickly add up to a weight gain of 11-14 lbs in just one year.

  2. Brent Kim

    Posted by Brent Kim

    Thanks for pointing that out, Lauren. Since sugar-sweetened beverages don’t leave consumers with a feeling of satiety or “fullness,” it’s no wonder we end up drinking so many excess calories!

    On a related note, some food manufacturers have recently began marketing satiety as a selling point. “Jelly drinks” – sweetened drinks with added guar gum to enhance fullness – were a recent hit in Asia: http://www.euromonitor.com/Satiety_the_latest_craze_or_a_passing_phase

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