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Soda increases cancer death risk 5%, study finds


Dive Brief:

  • People who drink two or more servings of sugar-sweetened beverages per day have a 5% increased risk of death from an obesity-related cancer, according to a new study led by researchers at the American Cancer Society and published in the journal Cancer, Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.
  • Researchers found these risks seem to be related to the higher body mass index of regular consumers of sugar-sweetened beverages. The study followed the health of more than 900,000 people who were cancer-free in 1982, tallying information about their sugary drink consumption and deaths through 2016.
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages, including many sodas, have been targeted by health advocates, consumer groups and policymakers for years. As several studies have associated consumption of these drinks with negative health outcomes, often unsuccessful efforts have been made to ban or tax them. 

Dive Insight:

From a health and science perspective, there hasn’t been good news about sugary beverages for years.

A 2019 JAMA study found drinking two or more 8-ounce glasses of soda per day increased risk of death. A 2020 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found consumption of at least one sugary beverage a day led to a 20% higher risk of cardiovascular disease among female California teachers. This risk was more than doubled for those who drank fruit drinks with added sugars. Through the years, other studies have linked sugary beverage consumption to stroke, dementia, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome.

This study reaffirms what’s been known: Sugary beverages, which include traditional sodas and fruit drinks, can be detrimental to consumers’ health. The study didn’t draw a direct line between soda consumption and cancer, but found that people who drink more soda are more likely to have a high body mass index, and are therefore more likely to die from gastrointestinal, postmenopausal breast, endometrial and kidney cancer.

“Unfortunately, Americans exceed recommended limits on sugar consumption by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, and sugar-sweetened beverages are known risk factors for weight gain, being overweight, and obesity,” Marjorie McCullough, senior scientific director for epidemiology research at the American Cancer Society, said in a written statement. “Our findings further support the recommendation to limit consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.”

Beverages represent a huge proportion of U.S. consumers’ added sugar intake. The 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines for Americans found that 24% of all added sugar intake comes from sweetened beverages, with 16% coming from soda. Soft drinks are the largest single source of added sugars in the average diet, the report found.

Policymakers have worked to discourage sugary beverage consumption, but they have not always been successful. Cities and counties have passed “soda taxes” targeting sugary beverages, but they are controversial and may not achieve their aims. A study from the University of Georgia found that while a 2017 soda tax in Philadelphia decreased demand by about 31%, consumers shopped for sodas outside the city limits — effectively canceling about 40% of that reduction. They also increased purchases of other high-sugar items at grocery stores, effectively canceling another 40%, researchers said.

People are drinking less soda, however. According to statistics from IBISWorld, per capita soft drink consumption in the United States has been declining since 2006. Each person in the U.S. is estimated to drink 39.6 gallons of soft drinks this year, showing a decrease in consumption of 0.8% compared to 2021. And as Gen Z grows up, soda consumption may become less popular. Mintel found that nearly half of teens between 15 and 17 believed it was unhealthy to drink soda.

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