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Bill to put warning labels on sugary beverages fails, and that’s a shame

Bill to put warning labels on sugary beverages fails, and that’s a shame

Picture of Valerie Ruelas

Editor's Note: The Children’s Health Matters blog is a space dedicated to sharing important new research, policy ideas, clinical findings and journalism on children's health. It’s part of our effort to spur a conversation online and off that offers a rich and varied set of perspectives. As part of that mission, the blog features an occassional series with insights offered by two of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles’ leading community-based research teams.

The California Assembly Health Committee recently failed to pass the Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Safety Warning Act (Senate Bill 1000). The bill would have required sugar-sweetened beverages to bear safety labels warning consumers that such drinks can lead “to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”

CalBev, representing the state’s non-alcoholic beverage industry, opposed the bill, suggesting that current product labeling is enough and that consumption of these beverages does not contribute significantly to the surge of obesity in the United States.

As someone intimately involved in diabetes prevention initiatives at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and USC’s Keck School of Medicine, I heartily disagree. Current product labeling is not enough. Several studies have shown strong evidence that many people do not look at nutrition labels nor understand the information on them, including information about appropriate caloric intake.

In our survey of over 800 parents in East and South Los Angeles, Culver City, and Manhattan Beach who were purchasing meals from fast food venues, 38 percent stated they did not know how many calories they should consume, and 53 percent were not sure how many calories their children should consume daily.

Parents’ estimates of appropriate daily calorie consumption ranged from five to 10,000 calories for adults, and four to 4,000 calories for children. In focus groups, parents indicated that additional health information on food packaging would help them determine the healthiest food options. The U.S. government recommends that the average adult eat 2,000 calories per day, with very limited numbers coming from empty calories such as soda.

Research has provided enough evidence that the consumption of sugar sweetened beverages contributes to obesity that organizations including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization all endorse reducing sugary beverages from our diets. In our fast-food venue survey, we found that adults consumed on average 230 calories and children 170 calories from beverages. This represents over a quarter of the calories from their entire meal, and around 10 percent of their recommended daily caloric intake in just one meal.

In addition to increasing obesity, sugar sweetened beverages wreak havoc on our bodies in other ways. High fructose corn syrup consumption has been associated with kidney damage, increased blood pressure, heartburn and impaired digestion. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, now the leading cause of liver transplantation in the U.S., has been linked to fructose consumption in several studies. Additionally, anything that promotes weight gain increases the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Drinking soda not only contributes to obesity but it also stresses the body's ability to process sugar. Rapidly absorbed carbohydrates such as those from high fructose corn syrup put more strain on insulin-producing cells than other foods. When sugar enters the bloodstream quickly, the pancreas has to secrete large amounts of insulin for the body to process it. A soda habit places such high demand on the pancreas that ultimately it can’t keep up with the body's need for insulin. Also, insulin itself becomes less effective at processing sugar; both conditions contribute to the risk of developing diabetes.

In an article for The LA Daily News published on June 19, Susan Neely, president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, wrote:

“Getting serious about issues like obesity and diabetes starts with understanding the balance between healthy eating and physical activity — not regulations and warning labels. It starts with transparency and honesty, which is why policy makers should oppose warning labels in California and throughout the country.”

If we want transparency and honesty, warning labels are exactly what we need. Many sweetened beverages such as soda and energy drinks provide no nutrition whatsoever.  Having a warning on beverage containers and dispensing units could be a better way to communicate the role sugar sweetened beverages play in our diets, especially as it relates to obesity and type II diabetes. Policy makers could turn to warnings on alcohol and tobacco products for precedent and inspiration.

To make this label even more transparent and honest it should also include something like the following: In order to burn off the calories from this beverage, you will need to walk for 30 minutes, run for 17 minutes, or bike for 23 minutes.

According to the CDC, 80 percent of Americans do not get the recommended daily physical activity, so adding extra time to burn empty calories is bound to fail. Instead of trying to burn off these extra calories, there’s an easier solution. Drink water.

Valerie Ruelas is the director of community advocacy for the diabetes and obesity program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and the director of the community diabetes initiative at USC’s Keck School of Medicine.

Top photo by Mike Licht via Flickr; lower photo by Vox Efx.


The Center for Health Journalism’s two-day symposium on domestic violence will provide reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The first day will take place on the USC campus on Friday, March 17. The Center has a limited number of $300 travel stipends for California journalists coming from outside Southern California and a limited number of $500 travel stipends for those coming from out of state. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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