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Viewpoints: Don’t believe industry-paid ‘experts’ on soda and diabetes

Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

That’s certainly the case with the beverage industry’s aggressive efforts to recruit quasi-nutritionists to promote their ridiculous and scientifically disproven arguments – for example, that eating fruit has the same effect on the human body as drinking a soda.

By paying academics to be their spokesmen, trade groups representing the food and beverage industry are reviving a decades-old propaganda ploy, similar to when tobacco giants paid doctors and other “experts” to promote cigarettes.

This isn’t an anomaly; the practice is becoming endemic. Earlier this month, Liz Applegate, a UC Davis lecturer and American Beverage Association adviser, published an op-ed in The Sacramento Bee parroting industry talking points. Another recent example is James Rippe of the University of Central Florida, who was paid $500,000 a year by the Corn Refiners Association to publish commentaries in newspapers and academic journals.

Not only do beverage companies spend billions to deceptively market their products, they also spend millions commissioning biased research and paying “scientific advisers.” These shills spread the disproven claims that “a calorie is a calorie” and “sugar is sugar” – as if it doesn’t matter whether your children eat a balanced diet or only drink sugar water. Don’t be deceived.

As directors of major obesity and diabetes research programs at the University of Southern California and the University of California, San Francisco, who don’t take industry money, we want to set the record straight.

More than 20 years of peer-reviewed scientific research has pinpointed sugary drinks (whether sweetened with sucrose or high fructose corn syrup) as a primary contributor to Type 2 diabetes, especially in children. While we would all agree that there are other contributors, added sugars in beverages has emerged as the leading – and most preventable – risk factor.

Over the past 30 years, diabetes rates have more than tripled. Today, one-quarter of teens have diabetes or prediabetes, twice the rate of just 10 years ago. It’s no coincidence that two-thirds of teens have a soda, energy or sports drink every day.

Sugary drink consumption leads to fatty liver disease and insulin resistance, two contributors to the development of Type 2 diabetes. Drinking a soda a day for six months increases liver fat by almost 150 percent. In just eight weeks, the consumption of fructose-based beverages increases insulin resistance by 17 percent. A study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that drinking two or more sugary drinks daily triples the risk of death from heart attack (independent of weight or calories).

Sugary beverages – whether soft, sports or fruit drinks, or vitamin waters – are particularly harmful for several reasons. First, they contain an enormous amount of sugar (equivalent to 16 teaspoons per 20 ounces), contributing to weight gain, which is tied to diabetes.

Second, by lacking any nutrients (such as protein, fat or fiber) that slow the body’s absorption of these sugars, soft drinks lead to massive spikes in both glucose and fructose, the two sugars that make up sucrose and high fructose corn syrup. Repeated spikes in blood glucose require the pancreas to secrete high levels of insulin. The massive infusion of fructose is converted into fat by the liver, similar to how alcohol is metabolized. Fatty liver increases insulin resistance and inflammation, which in turn force the pancreas to produce even more insulin. Over time, the pancreas becomes exhausted and wears out, leading to diabetes.

Are apples really as harmful as soda? Of course not.

A soda has roughly three times more sugar, and since soda has no nutrients to be digested, it is absorbed immediately, spiking insulin and fattening up the liver. An apple, on the other hand, contains fiber so it is absorbed slowly, giving your liver a chance to catch up.

It is time for California to tune out beverage industry propaganda and tune in to the hard science showing how sugary beverages contribute to California’s bad health and rising health care costs. It is time for the beverage industry to stop paying off scientists. And it is time that we all learn the truth about the harmful effects of sugary drinks.