Business Health Services created this easy-to-read comparison of sugar contained in soda. Note: Kids daily allowance of sugar is 4 teaspoons!
Business Health Services created this easy-to-read comparison of sugar contained in soda. Note: Kids daily allowance of sugar is 4 teaspoons!

I took a sip of water, looked up and thought, “Holy cow. Everyone should see this.”

The ‘Think Before You Drink’ poster, produced by Baltimore’s-own Business Health Services, was posted above the drinking fountain at my daughter’s school. My eyes went straight to the 20-oz. orange Fanta bottle containing 17.6 teaspoons of sugar. That’s four times a child’s daily sugar allowance. I know that sodas are basically liquid candy, but having the metric unit of sugar grams converted to teaspoons was eye opening.

As a mom of two sugar-loving-boys, I’m at my wit’s end to successfully limit their sugar intake. For some reason, my daughter isn’t into sugar and sweets. I feel as if the world is conspiring against us parents because soda and junk food seems to be sold and passed out everywhere.

‘Think Before You Drink’ gets to the point: sugary soda is a key contributor to our daily average of 40 teaspoons of sugar per person which is contributing to our nation’s diabetes and obesity epidemic. Watching the drama surrounding Howard County’s attempts to help improve their citizen’s health makes you realize how difficult it will be to solve our nation’s sugar addiction.

Life and Death – Sugar is Serious Business

One-third of Maryland’s children, 450,000, are overweight or obese. Of the 450,000, half are overweight, which means their Body Mass Index (BMI) falls between the 85th to 94th percentile. The other remaining half are obese, or their BMI is in the 95th percentile or higher. A major risk factor for diabetes is being overweight or obese. According to the Maryland Environmental Health Network Children’s Progress Report, kids’ obesity rates have increased 171 percent between 1990 to 2011. Childhood diabetes rates have risen 53 percent between 1980 to 2004. This is insane, our kids are not as healthy as we were as children.

$2 million = 4 percent drop in ‘HoCo’ soda sales

Howard County's Horizon Foundation clever marketing makes the point that many beverages are just candy in disguise.
Horizon Foundation’s clever marketing makes the point that many beverages are just candy in disguise.
Horizon Foundation’s clever marketing makes the point that many beverages are just candy in disguise.

In 2012, urged on by citizens, public health professionals and the Horizon Foundation, Howard County (HoCo) Executive Ken Ulman banned the sale of sugary drinks on county property. But on the first day of the current HoCo Executive’s term,  Allan Kittleman repealed the ban. Kittleman’s reason? “Better education is the key to dealing with this issue, not simple bans.”

When HoCo’s County Council legislated that healthier food and beverage options must be included in county vending machines, Kittleman also vetoed that action. This June, HoCo’s Council Members overturned Kittleman’s vending veto, meaning HoCo vending machines may be stuffed with pretzels, not cheese balls. Howard County schools already restrict soda sales. 

Here’s the rub with Kittleman’s, and other’s, push back on bans – education isn’t working. A major goal of the nonprofit Horizon Foundation is to help Howard County’s kids achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Launched in 2012, Howard County Unsweetened is a comprehensive marketing, TV, print and education campaign intended to help HoCo citizens choose healthier drink options. They even offered an online Better Beverage Finder tool. 

Ian Kennedy, Horizon Foundation’s Director of Communications reveals how difficult it is to change unhealthy habits through education. “Our all-in campaign expenses so far are $2 million. Though Howard County’s soda sales dropped faster than the national average by 400 percent, overall HoCo soda sales fell 4 percent.”

What’s confusing is using the metric system

When the HoCo Council re-instated legislation forcing county vending machines to contain healthier options, that move effectively nixed the sale of 20-ounce sodas containing 17.6 teaspoons of sugar. Ellen Valentino, a lobbyist for the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association, predictably stated, “The council’s override paves the way for these arbitrary and confusing nutritional recommendations to become part of the Howard County Code. That sets a bad precedent.” Bad precedent for the beverage industry’s bottom line, but not the country’s waist line.

Confusing is a beverage industry that prints the metric unit for weight, a gram, on a soda’s nutritional label. Doesn’t the U.S. follow the standard system? What on earth is one gram of sugar? I’m even hard-pressed to relate to one ounce. Is that one-eighth of a cup? For future reference, four grams of sugar equals one teaspoon. Yes, the spoon that every kid uses to eat cereal.

Willpower? We’re hard-wired to desire sugar   

In 1822, the average person ingested 2 teaspoons of sugar. Today’s kids consume a shocking 32 teaspoons of sugar daily.  Kids should be eating about 4 teaspoons of sugar. No wonder one-third of our state’s kids are struggling with their weight.

Harvard Professor Daniel E. Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist, makes a strong case that humans evolved to crave sugar. A must-listen, this NPR Fresh Air podcast features Lieberman explaining modern ‘mismatch’ diseases. Lieberman’s key point is that our Paleolithic-evolved bodies aren’t adapted for our our modern, sedentary, and calorie-rich lifestyle. He posits the result is mismatch diseases, such as our nation’s sky-high rates of obesity and diabetes, just to name a few.

Thank you and my vote is “all of the above”

My vote is cast. I’m all for health education, but if soda is banned in certain spots and isn’t available, people don’t have to think before we drink. It’s also smart to make available healthier and smaller-sized options. Also, who killed water fountains? Having 20-ounce obscenely sugary drinks enticing us at every corner just taxes our limited willpower. And I submit we’ve failed miserably as a first-world nation in allowing for-profit companies to make public health decisions about the products they sell.

A big thank you to Business Health Services (BHS) for creating, and also for sharing with Baltimore Fishbowl readers, the ‘Think Before You Drink‘ image. Owned by Dawn Motovidlak, the Baltimore-based company offers 425 organizations customized corporate assistance and wellness programs. The ‘Think Before You Drink’ poster was created in partnership with a BHS client looking to better educate their employees about sugar in soda.

I’d give this effort an A+ and ‘Think Before You Drink’ gave me inspiration to buckle down on saying no, and it seems I have to everywhere, to soda. My son said to me yesterday, “I really wish you hadn’t seen that poster.” Onward.

Posted on August 25, 2015:

Reader Katie commented an excellent point that there are two types of diabetes. It’s smart for us to know the difference, and that lifestyle choices do not cause type-1 (T1D) diabetes. From the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s web site:

“There are a number of different types of diabetes. The two most common are type 1 diabetes (T1D) and type 2 diabetes. Other forms of diabetes include gestational diabetes, Latent Autoimmune Diabetes in Adults (LADA), and monogenic diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes (T1D, insulin-dependent or juvenile) can occur at any age, but most commonly is diagnosed from infancy to the late 30s. With T1D, a person’s pancreas produces little or no insulin. Although the causes are not entirely known, scientists believe the body’s own defense system (the immune system) attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.  People with T1D must inject insulin several times every day or continually infuse insulin through a pump.

While its causes are not yet entirely understood, scientists believe that both genetic factors and environmental triggers are involved. Its onset has nothing to do with diet or lifestyle. There is nothing you can do to prevent T1D, and — at present — nothing you can do to get rid of it.

Type 2 diabetes (T2D, non-insulin-dependent or adult-onset) Type 2 diabetes typically develops after age 40, but can appear earlier, and has recently begun to appear with more frequency in children. In this form of diabetes, the pancreas still produces insulin, but the body does not produce enough or is not able to use it effectively. Treatment includes diet control, exercise, self-monitoring of blood glucose and, in some cases, oral drugs or insulin.”

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Laurel Peltier

Laurel Peltier writes the environment GreenLaurel column every Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.

4 replies on “17 Teaspoons of Sugar in Soda! Are We Just Buying Diabetes?”

  1. Hi Laurel,
    I’m a mother of two very healthy children who eat healthy diets but have type 1 diabetes. In the spirit of educating people, I want you to understand that sugary drinks don’t cause type 1 diabetes as its an autoimmune disease. My daughters are often offended because the media falsely portrays “diabetes” as a disease one brings on his or her self by eating too much sugar. This is just not the case in what used to be called Juvenile Diabetes. Please be careful, there are a lot of children who would do anything to live without this relentless disease and feel defensive when people judge them and treat them as if they brought it on themselves. And actually for type 1 diabetics these sugar filled drinks can be lifesavers when treating a low blood sugar after a long soccer game or even a fun day at the beach.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, and also for your insight into what it can be like to live with type 1 diabetes. Especially as a child. I added a description at the end of the post from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation web site explaining the difference and also suspected causes of type 1 and 2 diabetes.

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