Dietary concerns send soda sales down in favor of low-sugar drinks

F or the first five years of his life, Sarah Munson’s son never tasted a soft drink.

Then, during a trip to the zoo, a family member bought him a lemon-lime soda. He hated it.

“He hasn’t developed a palate for it, so he doesn’t have a taste for it yet,” Munson said.

The 36-year-old working mother tries to limit her son’s beverage choices to water and milk — drinks that do not contain added sugars. More and more American families are making similar choices.

Americans’ taste for soda has dropped to its lowest point in the past two decades, according to research by the Beverage Digest publication. Last year, the average American consumed 44 gallons of carbonated soft drinks, a drop of about 14 percent from 1998.

People are becoming more aware of what kinds of food they consume, said Denise Holston-West, a dietitian with the LSU Agricultural Center.

“Now they are probably watching what they put in their mouths because it can have impacts way down the line,” said Holston-West, an instructor for the Smart Bodies program that educates children on healthy eating.

Nutrition education programs, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate and first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, are helping teach consumers to become conscious of what they eat, she said.

Also, Holston-West said, consumers now have more beverage options than ever, with several varieties of fruit juices, bottled waters and sports drinks available.

The problem with sodas, according to Lori Gardiner, a Baton Rouge dietitian who specializes in weight management, is that carbonated drinks provide no nutrition, just calories.

“By the time you eat all the things you should, there is not a lot of room for empty calories,” Gardiner said. “That’s where excess weight would come from.”

Soda consumption is a particular concern for children. When kids consume more carbonated beverages, they often drink them instead of more beneficial choices, Holston-West said.

“They are displacing what we recommend for their milk consumption because they are drinking soft drinks or sports drinks or energy drinks,” she said.

Americans also are drinking fewer diet drinks, according to the Beverage Digest data. Last year, consumption of diet sodas sweetened with no-calorie sweeteners fell by 6 percent over the previous year.

Many consumers fear that the artificial sweeteners used in diet drinks are dangerous, Holston-West said. Aspartame, the most popular diet drink sweetener, has been studied 25 times, she said, and has been judged safe.

“I think some consumers feel enough time hasn’t passed for them to be fully studied,” Holston-West said. “As of today we have not found any scientific literature that has found them not to be safe.”

Robin McCarley, a 49-year-old LSU chemistry professor and father of three children, limits his family’s soda in two ways. They save their soft drinks for a treat once a week, and they prefer sodas sweetened with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, which most major soda manufacturers use.

High fructose corn syrup contains the same type of sugar that is in fruit — fructose — a type of sugar that our bodies are programmed to crave.

Eating fruit helps the body add fat when other food sources may not be available, McCarley said.

Drinks sweetened with cane sugar satisfy a thirst better, in his opinion.

“From health standpoints, nobody needs to be eating massive amounts of sugar,” he said. “If you limit your intake, cane sugar is a safer bet and is more satisfying.”

Because his family has a history of diabetes, McCarley wants to promote healthy habits with his children, and limiting soda is one way.

“We’re cultivating eating habits that are going to be lifelong,” he said.