Is soda consumption headed up or down? Our new research brief tracks the trends

Healthy Food America today released Trends in Sugary Drinks Consumption in the US, 2005-2012, a research brief analyzing the four most recent waves of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), from 2005-2012. NHANES is the best available comprehensive source of national data on beverage consumption; 2012 is the most recent full data set available publicly, though CDC in January issued a partial

Reports of Big Soda’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, based on Healthy Food America’s new research brief. Recent media stories have focused on soda consumption falling and bottle water rising to become the most popular beverage in America. While that may be cause for some celebration, focusing on the decline of soda oversimplifies how the sugary drink landscape has changed.  There are many more types of sugary drink products now on the market– and we still consume historically high quantities. 

brief_thum.pngFor this research brief we analyzed trends in sugary drink consumption from 2005-06 to 2011-12 – a period when the U.S. beverage market shifted away from soda and toward other sugary drinks. Undoubtedly, soda consumption has declined in the U.S. since the early 2000s. But that comparison says more about Big Soda’s predominance in the early 2000s, when soda was at its apex, three times higher than in the late 1970s and by far the most popular sugary drink.  

Our review finds that recent progress has been limited to conventional soda, and that declines in consumption of this beverage have been largely offset by increases in other sugary drinks. Collectively, consumption of all sugary drinks reached a plateau and remained there from 2005-06 to 2011-12. True, consumption is not as high as it was in in 2000, but it remains twice as high as it was in past generations. Americans still consumed an average of almost 200 calories of sugary drinks per day in 2011-12 (Check this video to put those calories in context).

Meanwhile, income differences have gone from bad to worse, as low-income Americans consume as many sugary drinks as ever, while high-income Americans have reduced their consumption. As Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard University told The Washington Post recently:

“People with higher levels of education and income have made dramatic changes to their diets overall in recent years. Many people with lower levels of education and income have seen no improvement.”

The lack of progress in young kids is also a concern. Kids younger than 12 consumed as many sugary drinks in 2012 as they did in 2005 – an unhealthy trajectory the consequences of which could take years to unfold. Some experts suspect that sugary drink consumption could rebound in the future as a generation of Americans who have been consuming sugary drinks for years continues to drink then as they age.     

graph.pngOur analysis found that Americans consume a more diverse mix of sugary drinks today, cutting back on soda but increasing sweetened tea and energy drinks, as examples. Different segments of the population also prefer different beverages. Soda is still the predominant sugary drink among whites, for example, but fruit-flavored drinks are almost as popular as soda among blacks.

These results reinforce the need to pursue sugary drink taxes and other programs to reduce all sugary drinks, not just soda. Big Soda often claims that taxes are unnecessary because sugary drinks are not a problem anymore, but that simply isn’t true. Soda might not be at their peak anymore, but it – along with its many sugary offspring -- is still one of the largest public health threats in the U.S.


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