Scitech | Hard facts on soft drinks

A look into the potentially addictive nature of our best-loved sodas

It is no news to us that soft drinks contain extraordinary amounts of sugar. Coke, for example, contains the equivalent of ten sugar cubes in every can. For the most part, we are aware of the health consequences that result from excessive sugar intake: cavities, increased risk of heart disease, and diabetes, to name a few. Despite all of this, some of us informed university students continue to grab a shiny red can of Coke with our sandwiches and pizza. We may even jokingly attribute this to an addiction or dependence of sorts, conceding that, although we know the detriments of our fizzy habits, we still do it.

The word addiction gets bantered around a lot, especially in relation to Coca Cola. This may be because of the unerring similarities between Coke and another kind of coke. Yes, Coke used to contain cocaine. And, in fact, cocoa leaves are still used to deliver some of that signature Coke taste – but nowadays these leaves are first processed and spent so that no more of the active drug is present. What is a more likely addictive agent in Coke is sugar.

Joe Schwarcz, a McGill Chemistry professor and author of several food chemistry books (including An Apple a Day and Let Them Eat Flax) told The Daily in an email that “the “addictive” potential of sugar has long been debated.” The definition of addiction, he clarified, involves three features: “A person will increase his intake of the drug to get the desired effect; he will experience withdrawal symptoms when access to the drug is cut off; and, he will relapse back into drug use.”

Schwarcz described studies wherein rats were observed to binge when sugar was doled out and show symptoms of withdrawal when it was taken away. Common withdrawal symptoms – such as teeth chattering and shaking – were also shown when opiate receptors were blocked. This finding suggests a disturbing conclusion: that sugar can have an opiate-like effect. Though Schwarcz conceded that this research is “interesting”, he added that, “I think humans just like the taste of sweets.”

There is no doubt about that. Sugar is an important source of energy. Evolutionarily speaking, we are wired to find the taste of sugar enjoyable, because we need it. While this instinct may have served us well in our hunter-gatherer days, it may not suit us so well given the abundance of sugar in Western countries in our current day and age. I spoke to several students who regularly drink Coke to ask them why they choose this beverage over others. Does a love of Coca Cola, for instance, translate to a love of all soft drinks?
Tina Latif, a U1 Math and Physics student, only drinks Coke – not diet, not Selection brand, not Pepsi. Just Coca Cola, preferably from a classic red can. “It’s really refreshing,” she said, adding that “other brands don’t have the same recipe.” Though Latif makes jokes about being an addict, pointing out the empty cans on her desk, she follows a self-imposed limit of one can a day. “It’s for financial and health reasons,” she elaborated.

For many people the consumption of soft drinks often incorporates a ritualistic aspect. Whether it’s a fixed time, a certain brand, or a specific way of drinking it, many avid drinkers of soda have a “thing”.

I have my own story of Coca Cola dependence. In my first year, I spent about a tenth of my meal plan solely on Coke bottles and soft drinks of the like (I still have a soft spot for Fresca), though I both knew – and felt – the consequences of my daily indulgence. It became more than habit: I would reach for a bottle every time I passed the drink fridge at RVC. In an effort to curb temptation I would consciously attempt to reroute my path through the cafeteria. More often than not, all this did was necessitate a second trip to the food area to pick up what I had sorely missed during my meal.

Some may call this addiction, and, in many ways, my behaviour did appear similar to mild addictive behaviour. But after I had left residence for home that summer, there were no substantial symptoms of withdrawal, and, in fact, I rarely reached for any of the readily available cans in the fridge. Quitting Coke, if that is indeed what I did, seemed to be no more difficult than quitting broccoli or beets. Perhaps it wasn’t an addiction – as I had told myself for so long – after all.

More likely, it was simply delicious, and after drinking it for a few days, it starts to become familiar. So it continued. For a person with a raging sweet tooth like me, this sounds like the logical progression.

The Canadian government’s definition of the “soft drink” industry includes essentially any non-alcoholic beverage, including, but not limited to, carbonated beverages, fruit juices, and energy and sports drinks. If one is using sugar levels as a measure of “unhealthiness”, these other drinks are no less culpable.

Schwarcz offered some interesting history of the creation of Gatorade. Its original purpose was to supply football players with lost energy and minerals during long practices. But the formula also contained a lot of sugar – more than was originally planned for, in fact: “The original Gatorade sports beverage was sweetened with the artificial sweetener sodium cyclamate. This was banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1970 because of studies showing an increase in bladder cancer in rats fed huge doses of the sweetener.” So the creator of Gatorade, Dr. Robert Cade, turned to “fructose, a sweet carbohydrate that doesn’t trigger insulin release.”

The amount of sugar in sports drinks, though predictably less than that of carbonated beverages, is still significant. Both Gatorade and Vitamin Water contain 20 grams of sugar for every 12 ounces, the size of a typical Coke can. The full bottle contains 33 grams of sugar. When I grab an “Mega C” Vitamin Water in the morning, I don’t expect to soon be consuming the equivalent of 8 sugar cubes. And yet a full bottle of Vitamin Water delivers almost the same sugar content as a can of Coke.

According to Gatorade’s website: “Years of laboratory research has shown that a 6 per cent carbohydrate solution provides an appealing taste profile when exercising, is rapidly emptied from the stomach and absorbed by the intestine, and delivers performance-enhancing energy to active muscles. “ Sounds pretty convincing. The amount of carbohydrates present in Gatorade even seems modest compared to the other recommended post-workout drinks. Chocolate milk, for example, contains twice as much sugar as an equal amount of Gatorade.

While it makes sense that sports drinks should supply carbohydrates in an easily metabolized form (read: sugar) to an athlete post-workout, this sugar content rarely raises concerns to casual consumers of these products. This applies not only to Gatorade, but also to Vitamin Water, Fuze, Red Bull, Rockstar – the list goes on.

It is difficult to avoid sweetened beverages. Even fruit juices are encompassed in the “soft drink” category, and if one looks solely at its sugar content there is no reason it shouldn’t. 12 ounces of Minute Maid orange juice has only three less grams of sugar than an equal amount of Coke.

Overall, it is close to impossible to pick a drink (that isn’t water) that doesn’t contain obscenely high amounts of sugar. But, as previously mentioned, many of these drinks (such as Gatorade, chocolate milk, and juice) deliver necessary nutrients to our bodies, and are beneficial under certain circumstances. Therefore, we should not respond with panic at the sugar levels presented here, but rather simply be aware of our choices. It is encouraging that the students I spoke to, who love the taste of Coke, still impose limits on their own habits. Though sugar may be tasty, it does not seem to actually cause uncontrollable addiction in people. While dieticians may bemoan our collective choice as a society to continue consumption of these unhealthy drinks, so long as individuals are educated about health consequences, it’s ultimately their prerogative.