Ray Rowlands, director of beverage research company Drinksinfo Ltd, is hoping to tone down the hysteria surrounding the negative effects of drinking carbonated soft drinks. Do you fancy his chances?

The barrage of “scientific” theses denouncing the evils of CSDs is unrelenting. The list of complaints includes, among other accusations, the onset of allergies, tooth decay, cancer, diabetes, obesity, elevated blood pressure and kidney damage.

While some of these charges may - to varying degrees - be valid, many media reports grossly overstate research findings or take them out of context, merely in order to be more newsworthy. Whilst I am not attempting to totally absolve CSDs of all negative claims, I think it is time to at least put their shortcomings into some sort of perspective.

Let's start with allergic reactions. These can, of course, occur in many forms, from mildly irritating rashes and swellings to more serious effects like anaphylaxis. One widely-used ingredient in soft drinks that is often associated with allergies is sodium benzoate, which acts as a preservative and a bacteria-destroying agent. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America states that significant numbers of people have reported allergic reactions to this compound. Fair enough, but not all soft drinks (e.g. neither Diet Coke nor Pepsi in the US) contain this ingredient and others are phasing it out. Meanwhile, if the public wants to steer totally clear of the effects of sodium benzoate, they had better also check their mouthwashes, toothpastes and cosmetics because it is often added to these, as well as to various foodstuffs. Bear in mind, of course, that allergies can stem from a wide range of other beverages, including alcohol, juice and milk.

Research has shown that CSDs can cause tooth erosion and decay due to acids present in the drinks. Don’t forget, however, that sweets, preserves, ice cream and cakes do the same damage. They can all potentially carry a high sugar content that increases the risk of tooth decay, as do less obvious foodstuffs like baked beans, ketchup, dried fruit and ready-made breakfast cereals. For good measure, you may want to add sparkling water to the list as well; carbonated waters can also allegedly erode tooth enamel.

There is growing controversy linking the consumption of CSDs with cancer. According to some reports released last November, for example, men who drink just one fizzy drink a day are 40% more likely to develop more serious forms of prostate cancer. However, according to Isabel Drake, a PhD student at Lund University in Sweden that carried out the research, it is “men who drank a lot of soft drinks or other drinks with added sugar” that are at risk. So, that would also mean squash, sweetened still drinks and iced tea and not specifically CSDs? I wonder why the headlines did not pick up on that. And, by the way, diet drinks plus tea and coffee with sugar were not included in the study.

Meanwhile, as other studies have linked CSDs with a greater risk of pancreatic cancer, conflicting research has found no direct connection. In addition, earlier fears surrounding the potential carcinogenic properties of saccharin, a common sweetening agent, have subsequently been quashed, whilst an article published in the journal Cancer has shown that consumption of CSDs is not associated with an increased risk of developing esophageal cancer. The end: There is no universally-accepted evidence to isolate CSDs as a key cancer threat. 

Obesity is becoming a weighty problem (pardon the pun). According to various reports, two thirds of American adults are now overweight whilst as many as one in four Mexicans and UK citizens are obese. Besides weight issues, obesity can lead to further health concerns such as diabetes and cardiovascular problems. Consumption of CSDs is often linked with weight gain. According to a 2005 report called "Liquid Candy", produced by the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest, the CSD category is the single largest source of calories in the American diet. However, in reality, the jury is still out as to whether any one single factor is to blame for obesity. Junk food and unhealthy eating also play their part. In general, it is over-indulgence that is the problem, whilst CSDs are often singled out as a convenient scapegoat. 

In 2011, a joint study by UK and US researchers warned that drinking too many sugary beverages (not specifically CSDs, by the way) appears to raise the risk of high blood pressure, a serious cardiovascular disease that can lead to strokes, heart disease and kidney failure. Heavy CSD drinkers, then, obviously need to be aware, just as they need to avoid fatty foods, salt, sugar, hydrogenated oils and red meat. Let us not forget that all of these can also lead to high blood pressure.

Finally, CSDs may cause kidney damage, but then so can alcohol, so we had better all go tea-total. No wait, tea may (depending on who you believe) bring on Alzheimer’s! So, what do we do now, hide under a rock and hope it all goes away? The real answer, of course, is to play safe and drink in moderation.

When all is said and done, however, CSDs are still the most popular of all packaged soft drinks.