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Can Soft Drinks Be Healthy?

New sodas are aimed at health-conscious consumers but fall short experts say.
By
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

The idea of a healthy soft drink may sound like an oxymoron. But to soda manufacturers, it's the hottest trend in the better-for-you category of food and beverages.

With all the attention on obesity and health, consumers are looking for healthier, more natural beverages.  And manufacturers are hoping to perk up sagging soda sales with new "healthy" soft drinks spiked with vitamins and minerals and marketed with natural-sounding terms.

Soda Sales Sagging

Sales of carbonated drinks have been sagging due to the popularity of bottled water and noncarbonated drinks like teas, juices, sports drinks, and "functional" drinks with added ingredients purported to reduce stress or increase energy.

Soda companies have responded by launching new products and marketing efforts.

Some carbonated beverages are now being marketed as "sparkling," implying a healthier, more natural beverage.  There are caffeine-free, no-calorie beverages laced with vitamins and minerals, like Diet Coke Plus and Tava from Pepsi. "Zero-calorie" sodas are aimed at consumers who don’t like the idea of a "diet" drink.  Jazzed-up flavors like pomegranate, cherry, vanilla, lemon, lime, and caramel are also making their way into soft drinks.

“The beverage industry believes that all beverages, including carbonated soft drinks, can be part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle,” says Tracey Halliday, spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association.  She points out that many of the beverage industry’s products, including bottled waters, juices, sports drinks, and diet soft drinks, can be catalysts to health and fitness. 

How Healthy Are the New Soft Drinks?

The truth is that artificially sweetened soft drinks – even those fortified with vitamins and minerals --  are anything but natural and healthy, says Marion Nestle, New York University nutrition professor and author of What to Eat.

"It is ridiculous to market soft drinks as healthy, but in today’s marketplace consumers are demanding more healthylooking food, and beverages and soft drink manufacturers need to boost sales," she says.

Most consumers do not need the extra vitamins found in fortified soft drinks, she adds.

"We are not vitamin deficient, and these beverages do not address the real health issues of our country of obesity, heart disease, or cancer," says Nestle.

University of Vermont researcher Rachel Johnson, PhD, RD, agrees.

"It concerns me that we have so many ultra-fortified products where we virtually put a vitamin pill into a soft drink," she says.  "The nutrients put into these soft drinks are not the shortfall nutrients that are lacking in our diets such as calcium, potassium, folate, or vitamin D."

Johnson advises consumers to choose beverages that not only quench thirst but also deliver needed nutrients, such as 100% fruit juice and skim or low-fat milk.

"These beverages will help you meet your nutritional needs and satisfy the recommendations of the [U.S. government's] 2005 Dietary Guidelines," she says.

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