Rising teen consumption of soft drinks assailed Watchdog agency fears they make youngsters fat, deprive them of calcium


WASHINGTON -- They warned you about Chinese food, oil-soaked movie popcorn and cinnamon buns. They said no to chimichangas and called fettuccine Alfredo a "heart attack on a plate."

Now, the nation's food police have taken on a new scourge: Soft drinks.

Today's kids are drinking too much of the stuff -- and not drinking the things they should, such as milk, water and fruit juice, said Michael F. Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington watchdog group. All that "liquid candy," he suspects, is making teen-agers fat and depriving them of calcium.

Twenty years ago, teen-agers drank twice as much milk as soft drinks. Now they drink twice as much soda as milk. The average teen-age boy drinks three cans of soda a day, while the average teen-age girl drinks two, according to government surveys.

Heavy soda drinkers, 10 percent of teens, drink five or more cans of soda each day.

Bottle sizes reflect the rising consumption of soft drinks. In the 1950s, Coke came in 6 1/2 -ounce bottles. A family-size Coke was 26 ounces. Now the 20-ounce plastic Coke bottle is a single serving. Cups sold at some convenience stores hold 64 ounces of soda -- containing 500 to 600 calories.

Drinking the occasional soft drink is certainly not harmful, said Jacobson. "But most people who swig soda are not filling up on spinach salads the rest of the day," Jacobson said yesterday, speaking at a crowded news conference that featured a wall of hundreds of soda cans -- the amount a typical teen-age boy drinks in a year.

Increased soft drink consumption may be one reason teens are drinking so little milk and are calcium deprived, said Dr. Bess Dawson-Hughes, a bone and osteoporosis expert from Tufts University who spoke at the news conference.

Because it is important to stockpile calcium and build healthy bones before age 20, today's milk-eschewing teens may be headed for osteoporosis and hip fractures as they age, she said.

Soft drink manufacturers, meanwhile, dismissed such claims as "unfounded consumer alarm."

"Soft drinks make no nutritious claims," said James Finkelstein, a spokesman for the National Soft Drink Association. "We are simply one of the nice little refreshments people can enjoy as part of a balanced diet."

A statement by the Grocery Manufacturers of America called the attack on soda "another tiresome tirade" and asked, "Is there any treat that is safe from their wrath?"

The center, with its series of high-profile attacks on some of America's best-loved foods, has been criticized by the food industry and by some food writers for sensationalistic tactics and a relentlessly negative view of dietary indulgence.

But the center can take credit for the nutrition labels on food describing fat and caloric content. And it is admired even by the government agencies it often chastises.

Jacobson wants soda manufacturers prohibited from marketing products in schools. Both Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. and PepsiCo Inc. have paid some school districts hefty fees for exclusive marketing rights in recent years, in part to establish brand loyalty. One company even markets baby bottles with the Pepsi logo.

The National Soft Drink Association responded that schools in federal lunch programs must shut down soft drink machines during breakfast and lunch. Schools are free to restrict soda sales, it adds.

Jacobson also called for more states to tax soft drinks as a way of underwriting programs that educate people about nutrition. He called for a government study on the effects of soda consumption on weight, heart disease, diabetes and kidney stones. Current science on those issues remains murky.

Pub Date: 10/22/98

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