Sugary drinks: liquid candy

By Hélène Laurendeau Published February 10th, 2012 (1)
Sugary drinks: liquid candy
It wasn’t that long ago that people quenched their thirst with a drink of tap water, milk, juice, and saved a glass of pop for visits and special occasions.

Nowadays, we buy sweetened vitamin water, pink lemonade, imitation fruit juice-flavoured punches and drinks, sweetened iced tea, fluorescent-coloured slushies and sport drinks, sweetened and caffeinated energy drinks, smoothies, milk shakes and iced coffees topped with whipped cream. It’s not surprising that the consumption of sugary drinks among young people has nearly tripled in thirty years.

The term is unequivocal. “Sugary drinks, whether carbonated, fruity, energy or with added sugar, are simply liquid candy,” says Paul Boisvert, kinesiologist and coordinator for educational activities at the Research Chair in Obesity at Laval University in Quebec City. This also includes pure fruit juice, store-bought ice tea, lemonade, sport and energy drinks. Why? “Because sugar, added or natural, is the main ingredient. The fact that it’s liquid also has a negative impact on satiety that will not be compensated by a reduction in the amount of solid food consumed at the next meal.” Furthermore, neither sugary drinks nor candy really fill you up. Consequence:  liquid calories are tacked on to the total calories you consume each day.

How much hidden sugar?

The Sip Smart! BC program, developed by the BC Pediatric Society, helps teach children in grades 4 to 6 about sugary drinks and about making healthy drink choices. Popular with teachers, kids and their parents, the program has been successful in encouraging students to reduce their consumption of sugary drinks. The program’s reach has spread too. It was adapted for a hundred elementary schools in Quebec.

Kids like pictures, so the Sip Smart program created a poster entitled “How Much Sugar is in Your Drink”. It uses sugar cubes to show students just how much hidden sugar is in popular drinks. And you, how many sugar cubes do you drink every day?

You can find this poster on the Sip Smart website, along with another poster entitled “What Size is Your Drink?”: http://dotcms.bcpeds.ca/sipsmart/teachers/teaching-resources.dot.


The amount of sugar (in cubes) found in the most popular drinks

  • Iced coffee with ice cream and whipped cream: 500 ml - 20 cubes
  • Slushie: 1 litre - 20 cubes
  • Cola: 591 ml - 16 cubes
  • Orange pop: 355 ml - 8 to 10 cubes
  • Store-bought lemonade: 591 ml - 8 cubes
  • Sport drinks, such as Gatorade: 591 ml - 8 cubes
  • Store-bought iced tea: 473 ml - 8 cubes
  • Energy drink, such as Guru:  250 ml - 6 cubes
  • We’re often tempted to choose the larger format when comparing the price per litre of beverages. However, the evidence is clear: the larger the format, the more you consume … and the more the calories add up.
  • Sugary drinks threaten our health
    In a special report on the subject published by the Association pour la santé publique du Québec (Quebec Public Health Association), experts summed up the harmful effects of sugary drinks on health. Here they are:
  • › Weight gain and obesity
    It is now recognized that sugary drinks contribute to childhood obesity. The risks of becoming obese or overweight increase by 27% if you drink at least one sugary drink a day.
  • › Diabetes
    Drinking sugary drinks every day doubles your risk of developing adult-onset diabetes.
  • › Tooth decay
    The sugar and acidic ingredients found in many sugary drinks (even diet drinks) promote tooth decay. Added colours also contribute to staining teeth.
  • Cardiovascular disease
    Many studies have found that fructose has potentially harmful effects on your cardiovascular health. Risks increase by 40%.
  • › Filling you up… or not.
    Few among you would eat four peaches in one sitting… yet that’s the same amount of calories you ingest (160) when you drink a can of pop. Except the fresh fruit provides a wealth of vitamins, minerals and fibres that satisfy your hunger.
  • Diet drinks are just as guilty!
    Sure, it’s true they contain zero calories, except many use this as an excuse to balance out a fast food meal or junk food snack. Bye bye guilt! Low calorie and diet drinks are also harmful to your bone health due to their acidity, and, in the case of cola, their caffeine and phosphoric acid content. Finally, children and adolescents who regularly consume diet drinks also drink less milk, a source of 16 nutrients essential to their development and health.
  • Diet drinks keep us wanting more sugar. Paul Boisvert explains the trick they play on us: “When you consume a low calorie drink, your taste buds detect a sugary taste, but your body gets nothing! When your brain realizes the trick that’s been played on it, it wants to compensate for the sugar it didn’t really get… it asks the body to make up for it by consuming more calories at the next meal.”
  • Super sizing not the way to go
    The evolution of the average-sized format is telling. When it arrived on the market in Canada in 1906, a small bottle of Coke held 180 ml (6 oz.). In 1930, the size doubled to contain 355 ml (12 oz.), the format of aluminum cans sold today. In 1955, the family format arrived on the scene containing 796 ml (26 oz.). In 2011, the word family stopped showing up on containers with formats ranging from the 237 ml (8 oz.) mini can to the 2 litre (70 oz.) mega bottle.
  • Fountain, I won’t drink your water…
    It’s not easy to compete with companies that spend billions of dollars on advertising. Paul Boisvert surprised me during our interview: “When I do interviews with media or during my medical courses with students, you know what I’m hearing? Water is old news! People want a flavoured drink that tastes good. Don’t forget that taste remains the number one factor guiding consumers in their food and drink choices. When I hear this, I suggest an unsweetened bottle of water with added natural flavour, lemon for example.”
  • You’re thirsty?
    If you can chug two huge glasses of juice, lemonade or other sugary drink, it means you’re dehydrated. Instead of swallowing several hundred calories, start by drinking a glass of water until you’re satisfied. If you’re still thirsty, nothing is stopping you from enjoying a small glass of the drink of your choice.
  • Spot the hidden sugar
    You’ve got to pay attention when reading the list of ingredients, because sugar comes disguised in many different forms: white sugar, cane sugar, glucose, fructose, rice syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, molasses, brown sugar. These various sugars supply 4 calories per gram, the equivalent of a small sugar cube. Over the last 50 years, our young American neighbours aged 2 to 18 have increased their sugary drink consumption from 87 to 154 calories per day. They also drink less milk, a highly nutritious drink.
  • Daily consumption “Sugary drinks should be classed in the same league as dessert!”, states Paul Boisvert who adds the following recommendation: “I think there is enough proof out there to limit our consumption of sugary drinks to one a day, and instead opt for 100% pure fruit juice. The amount should not exceed 250 ml (8 oz.) per day, which represents about 100 calories or 6 teaspoons of sugar. Some will find this hard to do…that’s less than a regular-sized 355 ml or 12 oz. can.  
  • Drinking water is boring? Jazz it up a bit!
    › Cut slices of orange, lime or kiwi to flavour your water.
    › Add flavour to sparkling water with a splash of grenadine or other fruit syrup.
    › Infuse your own green or black tea and serve it iced with peach wedges for a really thirst quenching drink.
    › Squeeze a lemon to make homemade lemonade and garnish your glass with fresh mint leaves and a few raspberries.
    › Use a variety of fruit juices (mango, grape, cranberry) to make ice cubes and add them in a glass of water to suit your mood.
  • Thirsty stories?
    In Quebec, 2 litres of 1% milk cost three times more on average than a 2 litre bottle of pop. Strange!

    The website of a national supermarket chain offers its customers 176 sugary drink choices online: 59 colas, 52 waters, 28 sport drinks, 12 ice teas and 7 powders.

    Teens between 14 and 18 drink the most soft drinks. Boys drink more than girls.

Coca-Cola Facebook page: 22 million fans
Evian Water Facebook page: 572,000 fans

Hélène Laurendeau

Hélène Laurendeau

A nutrition and health enthusiast who loves to share: this description fits Hélène Laurendeau to a tee. She has been active for more than 25 years in the media and communications field. Nutritionist, host, columnist, author and speaker, Hélène holds a Bachelor degree in Nutrition and a Master degree in Epidemiology. She has spread her knowledge alongside Ricardo every week since 2005, as part of his daily show broadcast on ICI Radio-Canada Télé, as well as in Ricardo magazine, where she pens the Bien se nourrir (Eating Well) column.


  1. Netasha P.

    5 étoiles

    Good article (though short) to pass along to the nieces and nephews with kids. I cut sugar drinks from my diet years ago.

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