Boston Health Officials Take on Sugary Drinks

A woman shops for food items near a display of bottes of soda at a superrmarket on June 18, 2014.
A woman shops for food items near a display of bottes of soda at a superrmarket on June 18, 2014. –AFP/Getty Images

Could you limit your added sugar consumption to 6 to 9 teaspoons per day? The equivalent of 100 calories of added sugar for women and 150 added calories for men is the daily recommendation from the American Heart Association. But as we officially start July, kids are out of school, and everyone is reaching for more beverages in general on hot days. Unfortunately, those daily selections often include sugary drinks that aren’t good for us.

Percentage of Obese Adults, 2008 and 2010 Combined —Boston Public Health Commission

This summer, the Boston Public Health Commission is tackling those unhealthy habits and cravings, one additive at a time. In June, Boston public health officials tackled sodium through their #SwapTheSalt campaign, and now they’re turning their attention to the other diet devil: Sugar.


During the “Sugar Smarts’’ campaign, health officials hope to help shift the trajectory of some striking statistics about the health of the city’s residents. According to BPHC, approximately 54 percent of adults and 40 percent of public school students are overweight or obese in Boston, a condition that can lead to serious chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, as well as some types of cancer. Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that approximately 70 percent of adults are overweight or obese, while 17 percent of children on average are obese.

We consume 250 to 300 more calories daily than a few decades ago, and half of this increase can be attributed to an increased intake of sugary beverages, according to a 2009 study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

In 2013, the Boston Public Health Commission and Harvard School of Public Health researchers urged the US Food and Drug Administration to regulate the amount of added sugars in soda and sweetened drinks. Currently, sugar is not limited by the FDA, since it falls on an ingredients list “Generally Recognized as Safe’’ (GRAS).

Despite sugar’s “safe’’ standing, numerous studies link increases in obesity in the United States to consumption of sugary beverages, which is where BPHC’s campaign zeroes in. A child’s risk of becoming obese increases 60 percent with every additional sugary sweetened beverage consumed daily, according to a 2001 study published in Lancet.


The typical 20-ounce soda has 16 teaspoons of sugar and 250 calories, which according to BPHC, an adult would have to walk briskly for 45 minutes to burn off. The average child consumes 172 calories from sugar sweetened beverages daily, not far from the average intake of an adult, at 175 calories. That’s 11 to 12 teaspoons of sugar per day.

So where is all of that sugar lurking?

Not surprisingly, sugary beverages include any drinks that have added sugars, (versus the natural sugars that come from fruit). Sweetened teas, coffee drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, sweetened milks and milk alternatives, as well as one of the worst culprits, soda, all fall on this list.

Part of BPHC’s campaign is to battle the influence of the all-powerful beverage industry. According to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, children and teens saw an average of 12 to 16 ads on television per day in 2011 for foods or drinks high in saturated fat, sugar, or sodium.

Warning signs of a sugary beverage:

If the nutrition label has sugar as one of the first three ingredients or the beverage has more than 12 grams of sugar per 12 ounces, Boston health officials say that’s a beverage to avoid. But don’t stop there. Even if the nutrition label passes your test, check out the ingredients list for sneaky sugar synonyms. These ingredients are all added sugars, but they are called by different names.

Sneaky synonyms for added sugar include:

– High-fructose corn syrup

– Fruit juice concentrate

– Corn sweetener

– Honey


– Brown sugar

– Maltose

– Raw sugar

– Molasses

– Maple syrup

– Cane sugar

– Sucrose

– Dextrose

“If it’s 100% fruit juice or milk, you won’t find any of these words,’’ BPHC says on their campaign website.

In 2012, Boston Public Health Commission, YMCA of Greater Boston, Boston REACH (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health) Coalition, and Harvard School of Public Health’s Prevention Research Center and Department of Nutrition partnered with a $4.6 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work to reduce obesity and hypertension among Black and Latino residents. Boston and Los Angeles were the only two cities in the country to receive the 3-year funding from the REACH grant program.

The promotion of healthy beverages and reduction of sodium in food is one of the REACH Project’s four strategies, which include:

1. In after school programs, incorporate more physical activity, healthy practices

2. For the greater community, increase physical activity in parks and other community settings, and work with Violence Intervention and Prevention (VIP) coalitions.

3. Promote policies to reduce sodium and increase healthy beverages in organizations.

4. Work to help residents with hypertension to get the support they need to effectively control their blood pressure.

The BPHC campaign argues that we protect our children in so many other ways, except when it comes to protecting them from a sugar-filled diet. What do you think?

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