Canadians between the ages of nine and 18 consume more than half a litre of sugar-sweetened beverages a day on average, which will contribute to three million cases of obesity and more than 63,000 premature deaths in the next 25 years, according to a new analysis released Friday.
The study, commissioned by a coalition of health groups including the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Canadian Cancer Society and Canadian Diabetes Association, found that while pop consumption appears to be going down, sales of other sweetened beverages, namely energy drinks, sweetened coffee, flavoured water and milk, sports drinks and drinkable yogurt, have risen substantially. For instance, pop sales decreased 27 per cent over the 12-year period included in the study, but energy-drink sales rose 638 per cent, while sales of sweetened coffee (that is, coffee drinks with sugar added before purchase) jumped 579 per cent.
"The increase in those things has actually offset the decrease in pop sales," said Dr. David Hammond, assistant professor at the University of Waterloo's School of Public Health and Health Systems, and one of the researchers who conducted the study.
Overall, children 8 and under consume about 326 millilitres of sugar-sweetened beverages a day, youth between 9 and 18 consume 578 millilitres, while those 19 to 30 drink about 500 millilitres a day. Adults 31 and older consume the least, at 259 millilitres a day. The World Health Organization recommends that consumption of "free sugars" – those added to foods or found in fruit juice, for example – not exceed 10 per cent of daily caloric intake. But the figures show many Canadians are far exceeding this figure, Hammond said.
"We're still near historic levels in terms of the amount of sugar we consume from beverages," Hammond said.
According to the analysis, which used predictive modelling to forecast the effect on the health system, the current consumption rates of sugary beverages will lead to one million cases of Type 2 diabetes in the next 25 years, and 300,000 cases of ischemic heart disease and 100,000 cases of cancer.
The Canadian Beverage Association declined an interview request. In a statement, the association said sugar-sweetened beverages only make up a small portion of calories in the average diet and that it's "illogical to isolate" one ingredient as a "unique contributor" to obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases. The association said energy drinks are a "niche" category representing 1 per cent of non-alcoholic beverages consumed in Canada in 2015. The industry has also worked to increase the availability of low- and no-calorie offerings, the statement said.
Health groups have been sounding the alarm over Canada's sugary-drink consumption more in recent years as mounting research shows they contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, some types of cancer and a range of other illnesses.
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of Ottawa's Bariatric Medical Institute and a nutrition expert, said he sees sugary beverages as a big part of the problem because they provide little to no nutritional value and could easily be eliminated from the average person's diet.
While most people have gotten the message that pop is full of sugar, the new research shows many still mistakenly believe other sweetened beverages are okay, Freedhoff said. School programs continue to offer chocolate milk and parents are choosing fruit juice or other non-carbonated sweetened beverages, which is directly contributing to a host of health problems, he said. Most parents wouldn't choose to give their kids pop if it contained a few added vitamins, so why are chocolate milk, juice and drinkable yogurt seen as okay, Freedhoff asked.
"That is what we are talking about," he said. "We're talking about a sugary delivery vehicle with vitamins."
The new study fills in some important gaps about sugary-drink consumption in Canada. Until now, researchers have relied on outdated 2004 data from Statistics Canada to estimate sugar consumption in Canada. To do the new analysis, researchers combined the 2004 data with sales information from 2001 to 2015 to estimate current consumption habits across age groups.