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Soundbites for Science (or, Why I’m afraid of the Internet)

by Kirsten Sanford, Oct 24 2008

Last week I was invited to be a guest food science expert on a new daily talk program on a major television network (which for contract purposes must remain unnamed until such time as the program airs). The job itself was easy enough: five minutes of answering physiological questions about food and performing some quick experiments. Of course, I over-prepared, and spent several days reading everything I could get my hands on regarding the smattering of topics.

One topic in particular I found quite interesting – how carbonated beverages, specifically cola, affect the body. The questions I was to be asked on camera mainly had to do with the acidity of the drinks. I’m a physiologist by training, so I had a pretty good idea how to answer the questions. But, I wanted to be certain I had accurate information. So, I went to the internet to find a few references.

Surprisingly, what interested me most about the topic wasn’t the actual physiology, but what I found on the internet. The references that came to the top of my Google search results told a frightening story about how a little bit of knowledge can cause a lot of confusion.

The majority of results promoted the view that colas and carbonated beverages are bad for you not because they contain massive amounts of sugar, but because they acidify your blood leading to the leaching of calcium from your bones and other terrible side-effects. “Don’t drink soda because it will make you acidic!” the sites insisted.

While based on some facts, this view is wrong. It is a disservice to public knowledge that so many sites parrot misleading information. The reality is that for most people a cola or two per day will have a negligible effect on the body, especially if the colas are of the diet persuasion. But, if colas contain acid and have a low pH, you might ask, why will the effect be minimal?

The human body is amazing at self-regulation. The central principle to physiology is that of homeostasis. The body will adjust to maintain a constant internal environment. In the case of the blood and fluids surrounding the cells, the body maintains a steady pH by modulating excretion of bicarbonate through the kidneys and exhalation of carbon dioxide via the lungs. Unless you are part of the small percentage of individuals with acid-base imbalances or metabolic disorders of some kind, your body will maintain a surprisingly even keel despite what you put in it.

That said, many people do drink too many sodas. They replace nutritious beverages that help to strengthen the body, like milk and water, with nutrient-poor carbonated ones. Anything in excess can be bad for you given enough time, and the reduction in nutrients coupled with increased caloric intake (in the case of regular sodas) has been shown to be deleterious to ones health.

I hope that I was able to get this across to the audience in my television appearance. I felt hampered by the lack of time. I wasn’t able to really address all the facts adequately, and was relegated to the soundbite, which certainly doesn’t tell a complete story. I don’t know if it was enough to be able to counteract all the misinformation that people hear or that they read on the web.

Many websites that rank well for particular search queries aren’t good sources of information. I was able to weed through the glut of websites talking about the effects of phosphoric and citric acid on the body, and find good solid facts to back up my statements. But, only because of my background. Most people don’t have the training to know the difference between a good source and a bad one.

I think that is what worries me the most about our age of information. There is too much information for any one person to be able to take it all in appropriately. How can people be better prepared to handle all the so-called truths coming at them? How do we teach people that it is a good thing to be a skeptic?

Is a soundbite a good place to start?

26 Responses to “Soundbites for Science (or, Why I’m afraid of the Internet)”

  1. George Bissett says:

    “They replace nutritious beverages that help to strengthen the body, like milk and water, with nutrient-poor carbonated ones.”

    Surely a litre of water can contain no more nutrients than a litre of sweet carbonated water.

    Your post presented some really good information but you seemed to feel the need to round it out with this politically correct judgemental paragraph.

    Just One Guy’s Opinion™

  2. [...] “Don’t drink soda because it will make you acidic!” – Let’s see about that. [...]

  3. Aaron Helton says:

    I’ve always figured that if you wanted a normal sized soda (that is, a can or bottle, not one of those behemoth jobs you could be getting), go for it. If you’re going to give them up, do so because of the sugar, which makes empty Calories. In my hierarchy, it’s Water > diet soda > sugary soda. I rarely drink juice, preferring to get the nutrients from fresh fruit instead, and I round out the beverage chart with milk and moderate alcohol. I am of the opinion that you can drink all of these things in moderation, and your post seems to confirm that stance.

  4. [...] Skepticblog is a new group blog by the cast and crew of the upcoming skeptical television program The Skeptologists. It sure seems to have a lot going for it. It has a snazzy graphic design. It has several nationally known skeptics like Michael Shermer, Phil Plait and Steven Novella. The first crop of articles covers such varied skeptical topics as UFO’s, Sylvia Browne, Kevin Trudeau and one of my favorites, internet misinformation. [...]

  5. rolla_costa says:

    As an experiment I just put cola and health into google and i found some of the same kinds of sites you mentioned. What surprised me however is how good a job of BS those sites do. They looked very convincing even to me and I am not a lay person. I could not imagine virtually anyone without an MD or biological science PhD could disprove the site. I am purposefully not linking to it however, as to not give the site undeserved promotion.

  6. plob218 says:

    Sadly, many people prefer categorizing foods as either “good for you” or “bad for you,” so this kind of nutrition advice–you know, reasonable moderation–is hard to come by. It’s good to see a food scientist happily admitting that sugar won’t kill you. Nice post, Kirsten!

  7. I echo George Bissett’s concern above.

    Why is plain water “nutritious”, but carbonated water “nutrient-poor”?

  8. sonic says:

    Here are four scientific studies that warn against drinking colas.
    When searching the web for information of a scientific nature I would suggest including terms like-
    “experimental evidence”, or “experimental results”
    This will get you to the real thing much faster.

    Soft drink consumption has increased by 300% in the past 20 years, and 56-85% of children in school consume at least one soft drink daily. The odds ratio of becoming obese among children increases 1.6 times for each additional can or glass of sugar-sweetened drink consumed beyond their usual daily intake of the beverage.

    “Research indicates that sodium benzoate, an ingredient in many soft drinks and sauces, has the ability to deactivate parts of DNA and eventually cause diseases such as Parkinson’s and cirrhosis of the liver.”

    Drinking 2 or more colas per day was associated with increased risk of chronic kidney disease (adjusted odds ratio = 2.3; 95% confidence interval = 1.4-3.7). Results were the same for regular colas (2.1; 1.3-3.4) and artificially sweetened colas (2.1; 0.7-2.5).

    CONCLUSIONS: Intake of cola, but not of other carbonated soft drinks, is associated with low BMD in women.

  9. Aliera says:

    I think it’s a tad unfair to call her out on accidentally saying water replaces nutrients. She was just listing some general and more healthful alternatives to soda, and getting your water plain, without the junk calories of soda sounds pretty healthy to me.

    And of course, the whole point of the article was the unverified accuracy of nutrition information on the internet [citation needed :)], which was done pretty well imho.

  10. Patrick Kuras says:

    Water is not nutritious. It is necessary, but (unless it contains added nutrients), it has no nutritional value.

    Diet soda is, physiologically speaking, roughly equivalent to water. Like water, it contains no energy that can be extracted by human metabolism (that is to say that it has zero or close to zero Calories). The sweeteners, flavorings and colorings that it contains are generally either very small in quantity, or of little impact physiologically, or both.

    Aspartame, the sweetener found in most diet soda, has, for most people, no discernible physiological impact. Some report headaches or other symptoms as a result of aspartame consumption, but rigorous, controlled, double-blind studies tend to show no statistically significant effect from consumption of aspartame.

    The one important exception is that people with phenylketonuria (PKU) should not use aspartame, because it contains phenylalanine. PKU is a genetic disorder that results in an inability to properly metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine.

    “Regular” (sugar-sweetened) soda is, of course, rather highly caloric, so its effect on the body is correspondingly greater. Strictly speaking, however, regular soda is nutritious, as it contains simple sugars, which are the most basic nutrient for the human body.

    Without glucose, we would die very quickly. Of course, we derive glucose or its metabolites from a great many foods, and we also need other substances to remain healthy.

    However, it is *not* incorrect to call sugared soda nutritious, and it *is* incorrect to call water nutritious.

    So, skeptical or not, we should strive for precision and accuracy of scientific expression.

  11. Inquisitor99 says:

    Doesn’t it say somewhere in the bible “for the dopes you always have with you” ?

    That there are uneducated dopes out there in this Information Age is only half of the scary story. The other half is that they seem to *want* to remain ignorant. And the third half is, these are people who vote in the same elections as you and I do, who drive on the same roads….scary, scary stuff!

  12. B. Basinger says:

    Also, one can narrow down Google searches to more legitimate sources by adding “site:edu” at the end of the search keywords. Sometimes “site:gov” helps ;). (Leave out the “”)

  13. Mike says:

    “Without glucose, we would die very quickly.”

    Of course, the dietary requirement for glucose is zero. The body is perfectly capable of creating all the glucose that it needs through gluconeogenesis.

  14. Dean says:

    The idea that an acidic beverage will make you acidic ties into all the sympathetic magic mumbo jumbo out there that people like to fall for. 95% of people have only a vague idea what being acidic or basic is (and the silly acid=bad equation), and even fewer know anything about what a buffer is. The body is pretty well buffered against pH changes, and proactively counteracts changes as well.

  15. Angelo says:

    Karen did a good job but, water being nutritious must have been an accident. I don’t think she meant to say that.

  16. Carl says:

    Karen? (It’s “Kirsten”.)

  17. Aaron W. Johnson says:

    I think that Kirsten was talking about healthier alternatives. Water, while having no nutrients, is absolutely essential to biological functions. If you simply replace ‘nutritious’ with ‘healthier’ the sentence is, I think, truer to the point Kirsten was making.

    On a separate note, I feel the need to share the results of an ‘experiment’ that my 4th grade teacher performed for my class in 1976 or 1977. This teacher took a small piece of hamburger, placed it in a cola bottle that had about 1.5 inches of cola in the bottom and replaced the cap. My teacher placed the bottle on the window ledge of a westward facing window that received sun for about 6 hours a day. Of course, the hamburger rotted in less than a week, turning a number of magnificently gruesome colors, sprouting grayish mold that covered the burger in fine hairs, and generally becoming, in the words of my 4th grade classmates, GROSS! At the conclusion of the experiment, the teacher announced to the class, “If cola will do that to hamburger, imagine what it does to your stomach.”

    That experiment remains with me to this day, as a great example of the power of the ignorant (or willfully misleading) in positions of authority. It was years before I could bring myself to have a soda.

  18. Kirsten says:

    Thanks for all the great comments on this first post, everyone. I’m excited to see such a response.

    My choice of “nutrient-poor” to describe sods, while water was described as being nutritious, was not not optimum. I should have used “less nutritious”, or even healthy versus unhealthy, but therein lies the rub of a blog — no editors to catch those little things, which suddenly become much bigger upon inspection.

    I’m glad I have you all to help me become an even stronger writer. Thanks again, and I hope you keep reading.

    P.S. to Aaron Johnson – That’s not teaching. It’s propaganda. Seriously, what misrepresentation to suggest that soda actually STAYS in your stomach for days, and that your stomach is like dead meat. Grrr…

  19. One of the ways the body buffers acid is to leach calcium from bone. So, there may still be a connection. Tight physiological regulation of acid is maintained but there is potential loss of bone calcium. I don’t know the answer to that. But, it is not enough to say there is tight control to conclude that there is no loss of bone material.

    By the way, homeostasis is dead. We are open, dynamical systems.

  20. mattdick says:

    Is a soundbite a good place to start?

    Kirsten, don’t feel bad about only being able to fill that spot with a tiny amount of good information. It’s television, that air time was going to be filled with something, and in the absence of folks like you who are willing to over-prepare to put good information there, that vacuum would be filled by whatever flotsom wanders by.

    Thanks for putting in the time for the good guys.

  21. B. Basinger says:

    Water does contain nutrients:

    The results of our study suggest that drinking water may be an important dietary source of Ca2+, Mg2+, and Na+. This is because minerals are highly bioavailable in water and because drinking water sources available to North Americans may contain clinically important levels of these minerals. Adequate daily consumption of some tap and bottled waters may help North American children and adults supplement dietary intake of Ca2+ and Mg2+ as well as reduce Na+ intake.

    Leave a whole raw egg in a container of vinegar. I don’t remember how long to leave it in, but once shell is gone + some extra time, remove the egg and bounce it on the floor. Really.

  22. Aaron W. Johnson says:

    In the case of water, nutrients as providers of calories (as they have been discussed previously in this post) are lacking. None of the typical components of water has any caloric value. It is true that water can be a significant source of trace elements and minerals (especially in places where water is very hard, such as my home here in the midwest). In fact, in some areas, the sodium content of ground water is high enough to be of concern to those who follow a low-sodium diet. Furthermore, water can be a source of potentially toxic elements (e.g. heavy metals, arsenic, selenium) when groundwater either carries them naturally (as in the case of some aquifers in rocks that are rich in these elements) or where groundwater has been contaminated by human activity. To complicate matters, where water contains organic molecules (either naturally or from anthropogenic sources) the equation becomes even more complicated. However, B. Basinger’s point is well taken: water can be a crucial source of trace elements necessary for life, and therefore can be considered to contain nutrients. Mea Culpa

    And a p.p.s. to Kirsten: I went on to earn a Ph.D. in Geology and become a professor at a regional university in the midwest. I research the Evolution/Intelligent Design debate in my spare time. And, I am a skeptic to the core…

  23. MarkA says:

    In my neck of the woods (upstate New York), I used to hear Dr Joel Wallach’s self-promotional radio show. I have not heard it lately; I wonder if he still does it. In any event, he is a big advocate of the “carbonated beverages wreak havoc on your body” school of thinking. He was also very opposed to “fried foods”. Though I don’t believe his theory that the majority of human diseases are caused by failure to take his line of vitamins and minerals, he had a very polished presentation. I don’t think there was ever a person who called his show who wouldn’t be helped by taking the “pig pack” many times a day. It was apparent that his audience was composed of those disenfranchised by mainstream medicine.

  24. [...] Soundbites for Science (or, Why I’m afraid of the Internet) [...]

  25. Ben says:

    “I was able to weed through the glut of websites … and find good solid facts to back up my statements.”

    It looks like Dr. Sanford used Google website results as her sources. I don’t see the need to resort to these when journal articles (e.g., from Google Scholar or PubMed) are more credible.

  26. Interesting read. There is currently quite a lot of information around this subject around and about on the net and some are most defintely better than others. You have caught the detail here just right which makes for a refreshing change – thanks.