That said, everyone should be limiting added sugar -- from drinks and food -- Sandon stressed. "We just do not need added sugar that is empty calories," she said.
The beverage industry also weighed in on the findings.
"This [study], which is neither peer-reviewed nor published, is more about sensationalism than science," the American Beverage Association (ABA) said in a statement issued Tuesday.
"In no way does it show that consuming sugar-sweetened beverages causes chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer -- the real causes of death among the studied subjects," the ABA added. "The researchers make a huge leap when they illogically and wrongly take beverage intake calculations from around the globe and allege that those beverages are the cause of deaths which the authors themselves acknowledge are due to chronic disease."
Study author Singh agreed that for any one person, many factors go into the risk of developing heart disease, cancer or other chronic conditions. But she said that on the "population level," it is still possible to estimate the number of deaths attributable to sugary drink consumption.
To do that, she and her colleagues used national nutrition surveys from around the world to gauge how high people's sugary drink intake was in each country. Then they estimated how sugar-added drinks affected obesity levels in those countries. Finally, Singh said, they turned to data on how obesity sways people's risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers -- such as breast, colon and pancreatic cancers.
Overall, they estimate that upwards of 180,000 deaths were "attributable to" sugary drink consumption in 2010. That included more than 130,000 from diabetes, about 45,000 from heart disease and stroke, and 4,600 from various cancers.
As for sugary drink intake, young Cuban men beat the rest of the world: Men younger than 45 typically downed more than five servings per day. And in general, Latin America and the Caribbean had the most deaths linked to sugar-sweetened drinks.
"This sheds light on the linear connection between sugary drink consumption and deaths," said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a cardiologist and director of Women and Heart Disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. She was not involved in the study.