A study published this week in the journal Circulation made the astonishing claim that worldwide 184,000 people die every year from drinking sugar-sweetened beverages. That’s right, according to these authors, the soda did it.
Such a serious accusation should be based on rock-solid evidence, you would think. But this is not the case. In fact, there is no proof for this claim in the study, and the authors acknowledge it.
The study, authored in part by Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy Dean Dariush Mozaffarian, makes a conclusion based on 2010 data on deaths and survey responses by people worldwide. But here is the kicker: The study does not show that consuming sugar-sweetened beverages causes any deaths.
You heard right. Despite the headlines, this study is only a statistical model and does not examine real-life health outcomes. The estimates and projections in the study do not, and in fact cannot, show that soda caused any of the deaths. The study examines deaths from chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer – but in no way shows that beverages caused them.
So why even do a study like this? Dr. Andrew Brown, a scientist at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, said the data collected was tenuous at best.
Brown said the study had assumptions built into its model, so “the results are not going to determine whether the model shows if there is harm, but only how much.”
Given that his study never proved that beverages cause any harm, Mozaffarian responded to reporters that “there’s no need to drink these beverages.” There’s no need to do a lot of things, but that’s not the point is it? The point is, is it harmful? The study cannot answer that.
Yet even the lack of proof did not stop the authors from incredibly calling for an urgent need for government action against beverages such as sodas, juice drinks, energy drinks, sweetened iced teas and even homemade drinks with sugar. Brown calls such a demand, “activism shrouded in science.”
The International Food Information Council Foundation, which supports credible science in food policy, pointed out that finding a correlation between one thing and death does not mean that thing causes death. The study found other correlations that were far higher in the deaths, such as diets low in fruits and vegetables. But none of these correlations establish causation either.
“So what should you prioritize in your diet?” asks IFIC. “Consuming too many calories from any single calorie source (sugar-sweetened beverages included) can lead to weight gain.”
Exactly: We can enjoy a range of foods and beverages in moderation. Like many ingredients, sugar has calories. So keep that in mind when balancing what you eat and drink with what you do through physical activity. Beverages can be a part of that balanced lifestyle.