A nutritionist’s take on the proposed soda tax
You may have heard about a proposal from New York City Mayor Bloomberg making national and international headlines, which aims to ban sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces from nearly all dining establishments, including restaurants, movie theaters, and street carts. The sanction is aimed at curbing obesity and improving residents’ health, but is legislating food and drinks going too far?
When I posted this question on my Facebook fan page I received more comments than I have on any other topic, with opinions going in both directions. Here’s where I stand: I do not recommend drinking either regular or diet soda. But while I believe that Mayor Bloomberg’s intentions are good, it’s been my experience as a health professional that becoming a food cop typically backfires, as I wrote about in a recent post and this goes for someone policing his or her significant other or government-imposed regulation.
The truth is that this type of proposal happens when there’s a crisis, and we are certainly in a crisis regarding obesity and sugar consumption, in New York City and nationwide. But in my opinion, the real solution is to change consumer demand. Due to consumer demand, we're seeing more natural and organic foods and more whole grains options in the market than ever before. If there were little demand for humungous, processed, sugary drinks, they wouldn’t be readily available. Proponents of the ban disagree though, and say that health education, and even scare tactics, haven’t worked, so this is the only solution. But if the ban goes though, could it open the door to further regulation? And is that the government’s role?
When I asked via Facebook and Twitter what motivated people who have kicked the soda habit to change, not one person cited taxation or legislation. The reasons included: light bulb moments of realizing what they were putting into their bodies matters; experiencing unwanted side effects from drinking regular or diet soda; or feeling amazing physically and psychologically after giving them up.
As for information, while there is a lot out there, I do talk to many people who truly don't realize the amount of sugar hidden in sweetened beverages, or don’t know how to put those numbers in perspective. In other words, they’ve never actually compared the amount of sugar in various drinks to what they should be consuming each day. Here’s the low down:
The average American takes in about 22 teaspoons of added sugar each day, the equivalent of 35 two-pound boxes per person each year, and the top source, about 1one third of that, is from sugary drinks.
According to the American Heart Association the target for added sugar (not sugar put in a food by Mother Nature, like sweet fruit, but sugar added to foods) should be no more than six level teaspoons daily for women, or nine level teaspoons daily for men. That includes drinks as well as sweetened food.
Just 16 ounces of regular soda, the proposed New York City portion cap, contains the equivalent of at least 12 teaspoons of sugar.
If you’re looking for soda alternatives and don't like the taste of plain water, here are some ways to boost flavor and add a little sweetness without overdosing on sugar:
Another soda alternative: brew and chill an all natural flavor-infused tea or herbal tea, like peach, berry, vanilla, or ginger
Add a splash of a high antioxidant 100% fruit juice to flat or bubbly water like blends of cherry, pomegranate, concord grape, blueberry, or any fruit you love
Add flavor, color, and nutrients to your H2O: freeze bits of real fruit and/or seasonings like organic citrus zest and cinnamon in ice cube trays
This is certainly a hot button issue we’ll likely be hearing a lot more about and I’d love to hear from you. Do you think laws regulating portions of “bad” foods are too Big Brother? Or do you think such measures are necessary? Please tweet @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.