Tag Archives: soft drinks

Sugar & the Modern Food Environment (Guest Post)

From the blog of Dr. Bill Glaros – Used with permission


Sugar has one thing going for it: It makes things taste good. And it’s a taste we’re born to prefer.

In the natural settings that human primate ancestors evolved in, sweetness intensity should indicate energy density, while bitterness tends to indicate toxicity. The high sweetness detection threshold and low bitterness detection threshold would have predisposed our primate ancestors to seek out sweet-tasting (and energy-dense) foods and avoid bitter-tasting foods. Even amongst leaf-eating primates, there is a tendency to prefer immature leaves, which tend to be higher in protein and lower in fibre and poisons than mature leaves. The “sweet tooth” thus has an ancient evolutionary heritage, and while food processing has changed consumption patterns, human physiology remains largely unchanged.

And therein lies the problem. Food and beverage manufacturers bank on this preference: Sweet sells, and we pay. The average American diet is so sugared up, we now eat over a hundred pounds of added sugars each year – roughly double what we ate a century ago. And what have we gotten for it? Not much nutrition but lots more obesity and illness. As Dr. Robert Lustig noted in his widely read and commented upon article in Nature earlier this year,

Authorities consider sugar as ’empty calories’ – but there is nothing empty about these calories. A growing body of scientific evidence is showing that fructose can trigger processes that lead to liver toxicity and a host of other chronic diseases. A little is not a problem, but a lot kills – slowly….

Is it really coincidence that industry front groups have been putting out more pro-sugar messages than usual? The month after publication of Lustig’s article, the International Food Information Council added a “Sugars and Health Resource Page” to pound home the point of how wholesome, safe and healthy sugar can be.

More recently, the New England Journal of Medicine published a set of articles on a major source of sugar: soft drinks. As noted in the lead editorial,

Sugar intake from sugar-sweetened beverages alone, which are the largest single caloric food source in the United States, approaches 15% of the daily caloric intake in several population groups. Adolescent boys in the United States consume an average of 357 kcal of the beverages per day….

Unlike carbohydrates with high fiber content, sugar-sweetened beverages are nutrient-poor and are often associated with consumption of salty foods and fast foods. An emerging association between the increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and coronary heart disease is a major concern.

Before the end of the day, the beverage industry was in full spin mode, tossing out unreferenced “facts” that largely sidestep the issues at hand. That “forty-eight percent of overweight and obese individuals drink no sugar-sweetened beverages” says nothing about those who do. And while it’s true that sugary drinks aren’t the sole source of increased caloric intake, they still play a role (in all their super-sized glory).

More, soft drinks offer nothing nutritionally – one reason why they’ve become an easy target for regulation. With processed food, you still get some nutritional value with the junk. With soft drinks, you get nothing but colored sugar water with some preservatives (and maybe a vitamin or two thrown in if it’s an “energy” or “smart” drink).

And it’s not just about the sugar. Too often, junk foods and soft drinks replace real, nutrient-dense foods. The fuller we get on that highly processed stuff, the less we eat things like vegetables and whole fruit. That displacement, in fact, may play a crucial role in the health damage we see from sugar-intensive diets. As Dr. Weston Price wrote in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration,

There is very little of the body building minerals in maple syrup, cane syrup from sugar, or honey. They can all defeat an otherwise efficient [healthy diet]. The problem is not so simple as merely cutting down or eliminating sugars and white flour, though this is exceedingly important. It is also necessary that adequate mineral and vitamin carrying foods be made available [to the body].

But sugar is so nice! you say. Indeed, it is – and even nicer when used less often and in smaller amounts. Here are 12 great tips from Mother Nature News to help get you started.

Image by kaibara87, via Flickr


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Teeth Sensitive? Don’t Look Now, but Your Dentin May Be Showing

“Your teeth are crystals, just like rocks,” explained Dr. Linda Niessen. “You know you erode rocks from water and rain; you can erode the teeth from these acidic drinks.”

The “acidic drinks” being blamed here for rising rates of dental sensitivity following tooth erosion are sports drinks like Gatorade, which some people think of as healthier than soda. In fact, they’re just another kind of soft drink, as are many sugar-laden energy drinks, juice-based drinks and teas.

It’s no surprise that we see more tooth erosion these days. The increase has paralleled the monumental rise in soft drink consumption and accelerated after the introduction of energy drinks – which may be even worse for teeth than soda – and popularization of sports drinks among non-athletes. Since the late 70s, “soft drink consumption in the United States has doubled for females and tripled for males. The highest consumption is in the males between the ages of 12 – 29; they average 1/2 gallon a day or 160 gallons a year.” Here in California (PDF), nearly half of all children aged 2 to 11 drink at least one soft drink a day, as do more than 60% of teens and 24% of adults.

Eroded teeth are necessarily sensitive teeth. The dentin – the layer of tissue between the tough enamel and the delicate pulp – is no longer protected. Cold air or liquid touching it may send shockwaves of pain through the tooth and into the jaw, or hot liquids or foods may cause discomfort.

Eroded teeth are also more prone to deep decay, since pathogenic oral microbes (“bad germs”) have easier access to the delicate tissues inside the tooth. Helping the decay process along are the continual sugar baths they get from soft drinks. Not only do the sugars feed the bacteria that cause decay, they also reverse the flow of fluids in the tooth so that microbes and their acidic waste products are pulled into it rather than repelled. (Read more about your teeth’s natural defenses against decay.)

Of course, when it comes to tooth erosion, soft drinks aren’t the only culprit – just a common one. For instance, stress can be a factor, often leading to grinding, clenching and other behaviors that weaken enamel over time. They also contribute to gum recession, where exposed tooth root also means more tooth sensitivity. (Chronic stress is also a drag on your immune system, making your body less resilient, more prone to disease and dysfunction.)

Another factor – often overlooked – is the effect of pharmaceutical drugs. (The skyrocketing rate of prescription drug use likewise parallels the rise in soft drink consumption.) As I mentioned before, dry mouth is a common “side effect” of drugs as varied as antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, antihistamines and muscle relaxants.

Dry mouth may not sound like anything too serious, but it’s got some significant dental implications, raising the risk of caries (cavities), tooth erosion and periodontal disease. This is because one of the functions of saliva is to wash away the microbes that make up dental biofilm (plaque) and food particles that feed them. Saliva is also a source of the calcium and phosophate particles that help keep tooth enamel strong. The less saliva, the more conditions favor decay and other tooth damage.

If dry mouth is an issue, there are remedies so you don’t put your teeth and gums at risk. In my office, for instance, we have products that can help, such as GC Dry Mouth Gel and the Dental Herb Company’s Tooth and Gums Tonic. But even just drinking more water can help relieve dry mouth, as can eating more foods that require chewing, especially foods like crunchy vegetables.

If grinding and clenching are a problem, your dentist can provide you with a splint to cushion and protect your teeth – as well as reduce the amount of associated pain you may be experiencing. (Neck, head, face, shoulder and back pain are all common, cascading effects of clenching and grinding.)

And, of course, moderating or eliminating soft drinks from your diet will also lower the risk of tooth erosion and sensitivity.

And if the damage is already done? Above all, see your dentist, so he or she can assess the situation, offer solutions and help you decide on the best course of action for fixing your teeth. In the interim, avoid stimuli that aggravate the pain and, when cleaning your teeth, use a very soft toothbrush and toothpaste formulated for sensitive teeth.

Image by stuartpilbrow, via Flickr

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Less Soda, More Water, Fewer Cavities, Better Health

Among Native Americans, tooth decay wasn’t too common before the arrival of the Europeans. Young people seldom suffered from it: it was usually associated with aging. But this all changed once the Europeans introduced white sugar and other non-indigenous foods. In general, as Weston Price showed, when communities switch from native to Western style diets, dental problems follow.

Recently, I read news of a study that looked at ways of reducing tooth decay (as well as obesity) among young Native Americans by discouraging soda consumption and increasing water intake. Of course, soda – which we might just as well call “sugar water” or “liquid candy” – is one of the prime accelerators of tooth decay in many communities. Not only do soft drinks bathe the teeth and gums in sugar – a favorite food of the oral microbes whose acidic waste products cause tooth decay. The acids they contain also weaken tooth enamel, making the teeth even more vulnerable to cavities.

For the Ethnicity & Disease study, the research team designed an intervention to encourage more healthful behaviors among members of a few Native American communities.

To implement TOTS (“The Toddler Overweight and Tooth Decay Prevention Study”) the researchers worked closely with tribal councils. In three of the four communities, good tasting water was made readily available in water fountains and inexpensive, refillable gallon jugs. Sugared soda was removed from tribal stores, and substitution of water for soda was actively encouraged through community outreach programs. Families received food counseling and breastfeeding support through tribal community health workers.

“After the successful switch to water, we compared the rate of tooth decay in children born in these three communities over the next 30 months with those born in a fourth community, where the young children had not benefited from the community interventions. We found a decrease of between 30 and 63 percent in early stage, potentially reversible tooth decay. For more advanced tooth decay the impact was smaller but nevertheless substantial. Children in intervention communities had 34 to 44 percent fewer cavities than those in the comparison community,” said Gerardo Maupomé, B.D.S., M.Sc., Ph.D., professor of preventive and community dentistry at the Indiana University School of Dentistry and a Regenstrief Institute affiliated scientist. He is the first author of the study.

One of the things that caught my attention here was just how clearly this study shows how healthier environments can encourage healthier behaviors. This is, of course, the thinking behind initiatives to get sodas, sports drinks and other sugary beverages out of schools. Yet these may have only a minor effect. After all, the larger environment remains unchanged. A student who can’t buy soda at school can still buy it away from school and lives in a culture in which drinking soda is the norm.

Yet we can still take steps to create and maintain positive, healthful personal environments for ourselves. And maybe our choices can serve to inspire and motivate others to value and pursue true health – something so much more profound than just the mere avoidance of sickness.


Image by Nicholas Taylor, via Flickr

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