Thursday, February 15, 2007

Warning Labels on Soda Pt 2: the Real Risk

Greetings, fellow nerds.

Last post, I ridiculed the warnings on the side of 2 liter soda bottles; in-depth studies did not find a single instance of them causing any serious eye injury. Today I'm going to estimate your health risks once the bottle is open.

If the soda you bought wasn't diet, then it's loaded with one of American nutritionists' worst nightmares: high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS is the most common caloric sweetener in soft drinks in the United States, in part because agricultural corn subsidies make corn plentiful and cheap.

HFCS: Empty Calories Without Filling You Up

It's a real shame that corn was chosen as the US's crutch crop, because HFCS happens to be not just pure sugar, but it's a kind of stealth sugar which doesn't make you feel less hungry. HFCS calories then don't displace other calories in your diet.

In the year 2000, a study was undertaken where human subjects were made to consume 450-calorie portions of either soda or jelly beans on a daily basis. Whereas the jelly bean-eating group ate fewer calories to compensate for the fact that they had to eat jelly beans (if only I were a five-year-old when this study started - talk about your dream job!), the soda-drinking group's appetite did not decrease at all - in fact drinking soda may have increased the subjects' appetite (although this increase was not statistically-significant).

The study I mentioned is not alone: research has shown that HFCS may be a serious culprit in the epidemic of obesity since HFCS can be directly converted to fat easily, and a 2006 summary of recent research has shown sugar-sweetened beverages to be dangerous in cross-sectional, prospective and experimental studies.

There is a mountain of scientific evidence that drinking HFCS in soda is bad for you. There's even been talk of putting a Surgeon General's warning on soda cans, since they are so unhealthy. How unhealthy are they? Here's my estimate.

Health Impact of the HFCS in Soda

If you drink that 2L bottle of non-diet soda, you're adding its whole 1000 calories to your diet, since HFCS doesn't fill you up. According to an earlier estimation of mine, eating 800 extra calories has a 94 in a million chance of killing you, which makes the risk associated with consuming a single soda bottle is about 118 in a million: there's a greater than 1 in 10,000 chance that drinking a 2L bottle of non-diet soda will kill you in the following 15 years.


Drinking the soda in a 2L bottle is at least one million times more risky than opening the bottle. Yet, the warning label on the bottle is for the latter, not the former. I wonder if maybe the label is there to try to assure us that the most dangerous part of enjoying the soda is opening it, lulling us into a false sense of security. In any case, once again we see that Americans are concerned with the wrong risks. Let's stop fear-mongering about things which won't hurt us and try to educate ourselves about things that might.

PS I've added drinking 2L of HFCS soda to the ever-expanding risk list wiki. So far, it's the first activity to warrant a yellow alert.

EDIT: I've added the life expectancy decrease (LED) and equivalent driving distance (EDD) metrics to this post. See this post for an introduction to the LED and EDD.

If consuming a 2L bottle of non-diet soda has a 118 in a million chance of killing you within 15 years, then its EDD is (1 billion miles / 14.6 * 118 / 1 million) = over 8,000 miles. So, it's safer to drive for 8000 miles than to consume a 2L bottle of non-diet soda.

The LED is (80 years * 118 / 1 million) = about 3 and a half days: enough to give you pause.


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