Bursting the cola bubble
Published in the New Delhi edition of Indian Express in September 2003
Much heat was generated in the country after Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) published its report on finding pesticides in soft drinks bottles. Media stoked the fire. The government report subsequently vindicated the cola giants. But was pesticides in soft drinks ever the issue?
by Anuradha Vashisht
CSE has not even scratched the surface of the problem. Pesticide traces have been found in our fruits, our vegetables, our crops, our soils, our water sources, and even in the milk of lactating mothers. What makes it such an important issue? Especially when the consumption of the basic necessities of life—food and water—is many times more than of colas and fizzes?
And why should the soft drinks manufacturers be taken to task over this issue, when the culprits here are clearly our government, its faulty policies and the lackadaisical approach of the bureaucrats? For, didn’t the pesticide traces come into the bottles through underground water, which is contaminated by the mindless use of chemicals in farming?
Even if the soft drink majors purify the water before they use it for their products, who will purify the water that billions of unsuspecting Indians drink?
We have clearly got our focus wrong. Who cares whether these soft drinks carry pesticides, muck or mercury? The real issue is that, pesticides or no pesticides, these drinks are still lethally corroding the health fabric of the nation.
I was aghast when my daughter’s teacher told me gleefully that the government report has cleared the cola companies. I realised how woefully inadequate is the information and awareness regarding the effects of the synthetic soft drinks on human health, especially children.
Studies over the years have shown that the huge amount of soda and refined sugar in these drinks hinder calcium and phosphorus absorption, thus lowering their levels in the body. Besides maintaining the strength and hardness of bones and teeth, calcium reacts with sodium and potassium to promote normal action of the heart muscle like a steady and rhythmic beat. It also helps in the clotting of blood, and plays a significant role in many other crucial body functions.
Similarly, phosphorus, while maintaining blood neutrality, reacts with other nutrients— carbohydrates, proteins and fats—and provides heat energy and other necessary material for body’s proper growth and maintenance. Both calcium and phosphorus are absolutely essential for normal regulation and coordination of body functions.
However, even a heavy amount of calcium supplements in our diet will be useless if we consume carbonated drinks, since they will not allow the body to absorb this vital ingredient.
Further, carbonated drinks are the single biggest source of refined sugars. Cola is a highly concentrated sugar solution, which leads to increased water excretion, leading to diarrheic potassium loss. In fact, every soft drink consumer, sooner or later, is a potential diabetic. In diet sodas, artificial sweeteners like saccharin are linked to urinary-bladder cancer in humans.
More than five year ago, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a non-profit organization in the US, presented over 40 scientific studies in a 70-page petition, which talked about the detrimental effects of caffeine in pops. Yet there are no public warnings or media information regarding this.
A key ingredient in soft drinks, caffeine causes increased excretion of calcium in urine, leading to conditions like decreased bone density, osteoporosis, rickets, menstrual disorders, foetal growth retardation and miscarriages etc in women and various other ailments.
Caffeine can also cause nervousness, anxiety, irritability, insomnia (sleeplessness), behavioural defects, and rapid heart beat. Its consumption makes children restless and fidgety and they also develop headaches.
Several additives used in soft drinks, like yellow dye and natural red colouring—cochineal and carmine—cause occasional allergic reactions. In the ’70’s, the American Family Physician journal placed cola and chocolate among the 10 food items that caused the most allergies, and recorded that symptoms like headache, migraine, asthma, gastrointestinal disorders, hay fever and eczema might indicate a cola allergy.
Research has also reported damage to the genetic make up from cola consumption. The type of DNA damage that occurs is considered to be a crucial step in the development of cancer and is also discussed as one probable cause of cardiovascular disease.
And then we have obesity, the bane of modern life style, now causing global concern. Studies in the US have linked obesity in the country to high intake of sugar through carbonated drinks. Obesity not just increases the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease; it is also a cause of severe social and psychological problems in millions of Americans. Indians are fast catching up.
Recent studies have also focused on the effects of extremely high levels of aluminium in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, indicating a connection between aluminum packaging and Alzheimer’s disease. The oxidized cover of canned pop, especially cola, is not good enough to withstand the forces of citric or phosphoric acid, common ingredients in soft drinks.
Most important, carbonated drinks have negative nutrition value. They can alter the pH of the stomach, which upsets digestion and hamper absorption of nutrients from truly healthy foods.
And a majority of populace all over the world actually consider these drinks safe and fun!
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) surveys, in the US, children start drinking soda pop at a remarkably young age. One fifth of one- and two-year-old children consume soft drinks. It is scary to think what soft drinks consumption can do to the organs and health of toddlers and our young children. Aren’t we denying them the right to health either by our own ignorance or in our eagerness to ape Western lifestyles?
To compound matters, consistent ad blitzkrieg by soft drink manufacturers has broken all ethical norms as they push their products down the throats of millions of unsuspecting consumers. The global spread and reach of these multi-national giants does not even spare the undernourished children of Africa.
These drinks are usually priced just within the reach of the poorest, and their glossily advertised images become symbolic of an enviable Western lifestyle. In 1969 it was reported that babies in Zambia became malnourished because their mothers fed them coke and Fanta, believing it was the best thing for their children. Around that time, 54 per cent of the seriously malnourished children admitted to the Ndola children’s hospital had ‘Fantababy’ written on their cards. The Zambian government subsequently banned Fanta advertisements.
Soft-drink companies are among the most aggressive marketers in the world, dwarfing all advertising and public service campaigns that promote consumption of fruits, vegetables, and healthful diets. In 1997, Coca-Cola spent $277 million on advertising and four major companies $631 million. Between 1986 and 1997 those companies spent $6.8 billion on advertising (Beverage Digest web site). An amount sufficient to maintain India’s medical and public health for the next 20 years!!!
Recently, the soft drinks industry urged the Finance Ministry for a rationalisation of excise duty. The plea was that when cosmetics, refrigerators and videocassettes were waived special excise duty (SED), aerated beverages, which account for 90 per cent consumption by the middle and lower income segments, were discriminated against. Industry further pointed out that high excise duty results in massive production of spurious products and inflicts loss of revenue to the exchequer.
They were obviously not thinking of the huge loss to nation’s health and human resource?!!
(The author researches the impact of modern lifestyle on human and environmental health, and is Founder-Director, Ideal Health Foundation)