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Sugar-Sweetened Soda as Bad as Smoking?

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New research suggests drinking sugar-sweetened soda daily could be as bad for biological aging as smoking.

According to the study, an adult who consumes a 20-ounce sugar-sweetened soft drink daily will add approximately 4.6 years of biological aging, which lead researcher of the study, Cindy Leung, Sc.D., from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Center for Health and Community, said is comparable to the effect of smoking, or to the effect of regular exercise in the opposite, anti-aging direction.

What’s more, cell aging has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer, which has led researchers to believe drinking sugar-sweetened soft drinks could promote disease unrelated to obesity.

“Regular consumption of sugar-sweetened sodas might influence disease development, not only by straining the body’s metabolic control of sugars, but also through accelerated cellular aging of tissues," said Elissa Epel, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at UCSF and senior author of the study.

The study measured telomeres—the protective units of DNA that cap the ends of chromosomes in cells—and found they were shorter in the white blood cells of survey participants who reported drinking more soda. Average sugar-sweetened soda consumption for the 5,309 survey participants was 12 ounces. About 21 percent reported drinking at least 20 ounces of sugar-sweetened soda a day.

The length of telomeres has previously been associated with human lifespan. Short telomeres also have been associated with the development of chronic diseases of aging, including heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer, as well as with oxidative damage to tissue, to inflammation and to insulin resistance.

Researchers measured telomeres after obtaining stored DNA from 5,309 participants, ages 20 to 65, with no history of diabetes or cardiovascular disease, who had participated the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, during the years 1999 through 2002.

“It is critical to understand both dietary factors that may shorten telomeres, as well as dietary factors that may lengthen telomeres," Leung said. “Here it appeared that the only beverage consumption that had a measurable negative association with telomere length was consumption of sugared soda."

The results were consistent regardless of age, race, income and education level. Children were not included in the study, but “it is possible that soda consumption is associated with telomere shortening in children, as well," Epel said. The findings were reported online today in the American Journal of Public Health.

The present study only compared telomere length and sugar-sweetened soda consumption for each participant at a single time point. A future study, co-lead by Epel, will track participants for weeks in real time to look for effects of sugar-sweetened soda consumption on aspects of cellular aging.

Several studies have linked sugar-sweetened beverages to adverse health effects, including diseases such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. However, it’s important to note, association does not mean causation.

Regardless, theses negative health effects have led regulatory agencies to take steps to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened soft drinks, including limiting children’s access to these beverages in school cafeterias. Food Product Design also took a look at the idea of imposing taxes to reduce consumption in its December 2013 issue of the SupplySide Boardroom Journal, “Thinking Big: Chipping Away at Obesity.” For a closer look, download the free issue.

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