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Researcher Says Conducting a Study on Soda Consumption Would Be Unethical

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Researchers at Lund University in Sweden were perhaps surprised to find that the results of their study on carbohydrate intake and prostate cancer were something of a miss. After a 15 year study on 8,128 men aged 45–73 years old, they found no association between total carbohydrate or dietary fiber intake and increased prostate cancer rates. What they did find though was even more remarkable.

After adjusting for age and other known risk factors, researchers concluded that, compared to men who never touch the stuff, men who consume even one soda or sugar-sweetened beverage a day increase their prostate cancer risk by an alarming 40%!

And believe it or not, this number is lower than it would be if “sugar-sweetened beverages” were not a factor, as that is a rather loosely defined term. Back in 2010, a study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention examined soda and juice consumption over a 14-year period and found that those who consumed just two sodas a week were 87% more likely to develop prostate cancer than those who did not consume sodas at all. However, there was no significant association between juice consumption and risk of pancreatic cancer.

So, where is the public outcry that might warrant a larger study on the chronic disease risks associated with daily soda and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption? While the beverage industry certainly puts a considerable amount of time and money into discrediting conclusions like those of the Lund University study, there may be another reason. It turns out that many scientists feel that a human study on soda consumption would be unethical. Studies thus far have been based on dietary recall, asking participants to simply remember and report their behaviors and the foods they consumed over a period of time. A proper study with the objective of gaining some hard evidence against soda would require a group of participants to consume a specified amount of soda per day. In an interview with AlterNet, senior researcher Isabel Drake said:

“When it comes to studies of soda consumption and chronic disease risk, the only superior alternative to a prospective cohort study would be to conduct a randomized, controlled trial, where you assign one group to drink high amounts soda over 20 years, and the other group to not consume soda…This, of course, is unethical and never going to be feasible. There are situations like this one, to assess for causal associations between soda consumption and cancer or other chronic diseases, where observational studies are realistically the best study design to address causal associations.”

What strikes me most about Drake’s this statement is her casual use of the word “unethical.” So, it’s unethical to perform a study in which participants would be required to drink soda every day, but don’t worry — it’s safe for daily consumption? Coca-Cola and Pepsi say so, and what have they got to lose if you learn the truth? (Oh yeah, $60 billion a year…)

And in the meantime, the beverage industry can just continue to safely claim that the consumption of their sugar and chemical-laden products have never conclusively been associated with chronic diseases or obesity.

This study and, more importantly, Isabel Drake’s comments, come at an interesting time. It seems the controversies surrounding soda have been front page material ever since Mayor Bloomberg announced New York City’s ban on the Big Gulp. Since then we’ve learned that high fructose corn syrup damages the liver in addition to signaling your hunger cues, causing you to eat more. We’ve also learned that many sweet beverages lend to severe depression and that two types of caramel coloring used in colas can cause cancer.

All that, and we still buy it up.

Where do we draw the line? I agree the government should not be involved in regulating what one chooses to put into his or her body, but when scientists are claiming it would be unethical to conduct a human study on sodas, the question then becomes: What’s preventing the majority of Americans from simply making better decisions regarding their health?

What are your thoughts on why Americans can’t seem to kick the soda habit? Is it nostalgia? Apathy? The illusion that they are exempt from the statistics? Or could the rationale less complicated and more removed? For example, it is certainly easy for one to perhaps form their argument around soda consumption around the statement, “I don’t feel bad after I drink a Coke, so it must be okay.” Please share your comments in the comment section below or tweet us with the hashtag #WhyTheSoda.


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Article updated on: February 5th, 2013

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One Response to “ Researcher Says Conducting a Study on Soda Consumption Would Be Unethical ”

  1. John Laverty on February 8, 2013 at 5:55 PM

    When a product ingredients is habit forming and leads to addiction, it becomes very difficult to stop using it, so they don’t, regardless of the health consequences.