Bill Bruce is group editorial director, FoodBev Media. This is a personal blog and views expressed are his own.

9 Jan 2013

Fizzy drinks are, once again, a soft target

As I arrived at work this morning, I was faced with a headline on the free, daily newspaper: 'Fizzy drinks linked to depression'. So, a new year and a new sensational scare story about the dangers of consumer soft drinks.

The American Academy of Neurology has released a study that it will present at its 65th Annual Meeting in San Diego in March, and the study links soft drinks to depression.

The US researchers apparently involved 263,925 people between the ages of 50 and 71 at enrolment. From 1995 to 1996, consumption of drinks such as soda, tea, fruit punch and coffee was evaluated. About 10 years later, researchers asked the participants whether they had been diagnosed with depression since the year 2000. A total of 11,311 depression diagnoses were made.

According to AAN, ‘those who drank more than four cans of soft drinks a day were 30% more likely to have had depression than those who drank none', and ‘the risk seemed greater among those who preferred diet drinks’.

It continued: ‘Those who drank four cans of fruit punch per day were about 38% more likely to develop depression than those who did not drink sweetened drinks. People who drank four cups of coffee per day were about 10% less likely to develop depression than those who drank no coffee. The risk appeared to be greater for people who drank diet than regular soda, diet than regular fruit punches and for diet than regular iced tea’.

Let’s look at the numbers, and the timing.

For a start, how did they find that many people who actually regularly drink four cans a day? And why that age group? If they had real concerns, their study should have targeted young people who are potentially more at risk from developing bad habits.

Then there’s the fact that the ‘depressed’ sample was only a little over 4% of the total, and if I was expected to drink a whole four cans of soft drinks a day, then I guess I’d become depressed too.

And so to the timing. Back in 1995-96, there were a limited number of sweeteners available, and that period pre-dates the international soft drinks industry’s drive to successfully introduce a considerably wider range of low- and no-calorie options for consumers – frequently these days featuring newly approved and popular natural options.

In some reports in the media today, aspartame has been linked to the story in an attempt to relight the debate around that sweetener, which has already had a clean bill of health from the European Food Safety Authority.

The report is skewed and is based on data that is flawed and outdated; news headlines for the sake of news headlines, with fizzy drinks the soft target once again.

As I’ve said many times, the industry provides choice and it should be up to consumers to moderate their own behaviour around consumption.

To be fair, the report ends by saying, ‘More research is needed to confirm these findings, and people with depression should continue to take depression medications prescribed by their doctors'.

Quite. And next time, perhaps the research can be relevant.