Health Food Drinks Killing us?

Sugar-sweetened beverages like Coke and Pepsi are a source of excess calories leading to weight gain linked to obesity , diabetes and heart disease. A can of Coke, for example, has 33 grams of sugar – the equivalent of about eight teaspoons. For the average adult, the daily allowance of sugar as part of a healthy diet is only six to nine teaspoons and so, after consuming one can of Coke, you have already exhausted your daily allowance. In the case of children, a single can of Coke is already way above the recommended daily sugar allowance. The linkage between these beverages and obesity is strong enough for several states in the US to impose a special tax similar to what is imposed on tobacco.

indian diabetologists have raised concerns about the penetration of beverage brands like Pepsi and Coke into India and have called for a tax on these products to limit consumption.Thankfully despite high decibel advertising, the per capita consumption of these beverages in India is still rather low in comparison to the US. But another, equally potent source of sugar calories dominates beverage consumption in India. This is the over `3,000-crore category of beverage brands that are marketed as health food drinks.

Some brands have been around for decades and belong to an era when the problems of excess sugar consumption had not been flagged in the minds of consumers. A read of the labels can be a revelation. One leading brand is really made up of 80% sugar and 16% simple sugars adding up to 96% or 82 calories. A single serve in milk gives about 220 calories against 138 calories in a can of Coke. Another gives 248 calories per serve in milk. The marginal utility of the added vitamins and minerals in otherwise well-fed children (in the socioeconomic class likely to purchase these products) does not outweigh the enormous harm that can result from weight gain in this population.

Many of these milk-additive products were originally developed with the intent of making it pleasant to consume milk. It is only in the past 10-15 years that the health claims made on their behalf have taken a life of their own. It is important that labelling of these products accurately and simply conveys the potential dangers of excess calorie intake from regular use. There is emerging scientific evidence linking sugar and glucose to pathways in the brain that mediate addictive behaviour. Given what we know we must pause and consider whether these products are doing any good or are they actually harming consumers. India is one of the largest markets in the world for these products and this may have something to do with the Indian preference for things that taste sweet. Only a campaign of consumer education, similar to tobacco, can help consumers gain the right perspective. Health food drinks are less about health and more about taste.

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