Have you ever drank a 20-ounce soda? That’s the size many adults and teens are drinking today. Or would you ever sit down and eat 16 teaspoons of sugar from a sugar bowl, one spoonful after another? When you drink a 20-ounce soda, you’re consuming 16 teaspoons of sugar, the equivalent of a third of a cup.
In the 1950s, the typical size of a serving of soda pop was 6.5 ounces. Since the 1980s, when serving sizes of sweetened beverages swelled, they’ve continued to increase, with our body weight growing right along with them. For example, in addition to the amount of food you need to eat, if you drink one 20-ounce bottle of soda every day for a year, you’ll gain 26 pounds.
Because beverages don’t fill your stomach the same way solid food does, you can drink many calories without being aware of it. This makes it all too easy to gain weight. A 12-ounce can of Coke or Pepsi contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar. Twelve ounces of lemonade, fruit punch or soda pop contain anywhere between 120 to 180 calories, attributable to the high sugar content of eight to 11 teaspoons. One level teaspoon of sugar equals 16 calories. When you do the math, you see that drinking one 12-ounce can of sweetened pop every day for a year is the equivalent of eating 76 cups of sugar.
A 20-ounce serving of lemonade, fruit punch or soda pop contains 200 to 300 calories. With just one of these drinks, we get 10 to 15 percent of our required daily calories. If you drink several cans or bottles every day, you could consume as many as 900 calories, depending on your choice of beverage.
Research has shown that children who drink large quantities of sweetened drinks receive less of the important nutrients they need – protein, vitamin A, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus – and gain excess weight because of the high caloric content in the sweet beverages.
So-called sports drinks and fruit punches can be expensive and as far as nutrition goes, you’ll do better if you drink water and eat a banana with a handful of salted nuts. At least you’ll be hydrated and have a healthy snack that provides protein, energy and B vitamins along with the minerals. Sports drinks and fruit punches, on the other hand, are comprised primarily of water, sugar, two minerals and perhaps some artificial colouring.
Read labels. The ingredient in the largest amount is listed first. Avoid drinks where sugar is the first ingredient or where it is the second ingredient listed after water. On some labels, both the second and third ingredients are sugars. When listed on a label, sugar can have many names. Look for words ending in “ose” in the list of ingredients: sucrose, fructose, dextrose and maltose. Also look for syrups, such as cane syrup, rice syrup, corn syrup and maple syrup. Watch for honey as well.
Some beverages that depict fruit on the label may contain very little fruit, if any at all. You have to read the label to see which ingredients the beverage contains. Avoid beverages such as fruit cocktails, fruit nectars, fruit drinks, fruit punches, slushes and those made with flavoured drink crystals. All of these contain too much sugar.
Artificial sweeteners have names like Splenda, sucralose, NutraSweet, aspartame, Sweet’N Low, SugarTwin, acesulfame potassium, Ace K, cyclamate, sucaryl, maltitol, sorbitol, xylitol, polydextrose, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates and isomalt. The soft drink industry would have us believe that a “diet” drink loaded with chemical sweeteners is healthy for us because it contains no calories!
The healthiest, calorie-free beverage you can drink is water. For added nutrition with very few calories, try drinking a vegetable juice. Tomato juice can be very refreshing.
Vesanto Melina is a BC-registered dietitian and co-author of the following nutrition classics: Becoming Vegan, the Food Allergy Survival Guide and Raising Vegetarian Children.