County takes aim at sugary drinks

High fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, fruit juice concentrate, sucrose, glucose, dextrose, evaporated cane juice. It doesn’t matter what it’s labeled or what type of sugar it is, sugar is sugar is sugar. And a countywide effort is working to inform consumers that drinking too much sugar, particularly hidden in drinks, puts their health at risk.

The effort urging consumers to rethink their drinks is focused around the message and question: “You wouldn’t eat 22 packs of sugar. Why are drinking them?” It aims to increase awareness about how much sugar people drink and the negative impacts drinking even one sugary drink a day has on a person’s health.

The campaign is funded through the $3.5 million Community Transformation Grant, a highly competitive grant awarded to Sonoma County in 2014 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The project is in collaboration with Alameda, San Francisco and San Mateo counties to make consumers aware about how to prevent chronic health problems, including obesity and Type 2 diabetes. The $150,000 campaign fits within Sonoma County’s goal to be the healthiest California county by 2020, with obesity prevention efforts at the forefront of achieving this goal.

Sonoma County Department of Health Services will use ads and posters to target consumers, particularly Latinos, teens and low-income families who are most susceptible to pro-sugary drink advertising and whose health has increasingly worsened in recent years due in part to poor beverage selections, according to county Healthy Beverage Initiative and Healthy Food Outlet Project Coordinator Jasmine Hunt. The campaign cites Latino children saw one-and-a-half times more ads for sugary drinks and energy drinks, and Latino youth saw twice as many ads compared to teens of other ethnicities.

Sugar is processed differently when a person drinks it as opposed when they eat it, Hunt explained. “Those who drink even one sugary drink a day are more likely to be affected by so many different health concerns (such as) weight gain, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and tooth decay.”

The problem, Hunt said, is people no longer have a sense of moderation. “We have gone from soda or sports drinks as an occasional treat to making them part of everyday life.”

On the campaign website, choosehealthydrinks.org, the number of sugar packets or the number of grams in common drinks is listed, along with average calories in those drinks and the time it would take to burn off those calories through vigorous exercise. A 20-ounce juice drink contains the equivalent of 23 sugar packets at 305 calories and would take 66 minutes of exercise to burn off. A soda of the same size is 242 calories with the equivalent of 22 sugar packets and would take 52 minutes to burn off. Even the more unsuspecting chocolate milk or sports drinks are listed at upward of nine sugar packets.

Adults who drink one or more sodas a day are 27 percent more likely than adults who do not drink sugary drinks to be considered overweight or obese. Children who drink one or more sugary drinks a day are 55 percent more likely overweight or obese.

Adults who drink one or two sugary drinks a day are 26 percent more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than adults who rarely drink sugary drinks, according to the campaign website. Type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disorder that is characterized by high blood sugar with insulin resistance and deficiency. In the United States, Type 2 diabetes accounts for 90 to 95 percent of all diagnosed cases of diabetes in adults and is the seventh leading cause of death in the nation. Obesity is considered the primary cause of Type 2 diabetes. In the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health, 79 million Americans ages 20 and older have pre-diabetes, a condition where blood glucose levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be properly considered diabetes. Nearly 26 million Americans have diabetes, according to the CDC.

The risk of heart disease and heart problems also increases with sugary drink consumption. According to the campaign research, women who drink one sugary drink a day are 27 percent more likely to have a heart attack than women who rarely drink sugary drinks, while men who drink one sugary drink a day are 20 percent more likely to have a heart attack.

In children, tooth decay from the sugars in the drinks increases, with children who drink soda twice as likely to exhibit signs of tooth decay than those who rarely drink soda, the website noted.

“It’s crazy to think that these drinks can have such a huge effect, but these health problems are directly caused by the sugar,” Hunt said.

The county has seen significant progress in the reduction of sugary drink consumption among children, according to the California Health Interview Survey. The survey indicated the number of Sonoma County children between the ages 2 to 11 who drink one or more sugary drinks a day had decreased by 63 percent since 2005.

“Unfortunately, the number of teens drinking at least one sugary drink a day has risen,” Interim Public Health Officer Karen Holbrook said in a press release. “We still have a lot of work to do.” This new data sparked new county tactics to reach teens through the sugary drink campaign through social media with a Facebook page and YouTube advertisements encouraging teens to make better choices about their drinks, Hunt said. She added that part of the effort includes outreach to parents, pushing them to help their teens make important lifestyle changes.

Sonoma resident Jessica Reyes works to educate parents at La Luz Center and Sassarini Elementary School on a variety on issues, including improving nutrition. Reyes, who first came to La Luz three years ago to improve her own nutrition, tells families that they are more at risk for diabetes if they drink too much soda.

“When you have children and you are raising a family,” she explained, “it is so much more important to watch what you drink and eat. You need to do it for yourself and to teach your children.”

Reyes sees that modeling behavior is effective through her own 2-year-old son, who prefers tomatoes and onions to sweets because he is rarely exposed to those sugars.

To reach consumers with this campaign running through April, the county is running billboards with some near schools; it will also put posters outside 67 convenience stores (many of which are near schools); it is actively working to engage younger consumers through social media and work with schools and community organizations to have a lasting effect.

The campaign is modeled after one in Los Angeles where 60 percent of people talked to after the project said they were “likely” or “very likely” to reduce the number of sugary drinks they were drinking after the campaign, according to Hunt.

For more information about the county’s collaborative effort to make healthier drink choices, visit choosehealthydrinks.org. The website also provides information on how much sugar is in common drinks, health effects, how to read nutrition labels and tips for cutting back on sugary drinks.