Study: Albertans highest consumers of sugar sweetened beverages

They’re sickeningly sweet and according to research done at the School of Public Health, sugar sweetened beverages are consumed at an alarmingly high rate in Alberta.

The term sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) refers to soda sweetened with sugar, corn syrup or other caloric sweeteners and other sweetened drinks, such as sport and energy drinks. Sue Buhler, a PhD candidate with the School of Public Health, has been researching Albertans’ love of sugar sweetened beverages and has found troubling numbers about the amounts we consume.

According to her research, and using secondary data from Statistics Canada, Buhler has found that Canadians have a high consumption rate for sugar sweetened beverages.  Alberta has the highest percentage of people who report drinking SSBs, consuming nearly 1.5 billion litres of SSBs every year. This is the equivalent of 417 litres per person aged 2-95 years or more than one litre per person, per day. That equates to approximately 52 kilograms of sugar consumed per person, per year.

 Sue Buhler, PhD student

“Consumption rates could be higher in Alberta because SSBs are currently more widely available and are cheaper than healthier alternatives,” Buhler says. “In fact, the prices for healthier beverages, such as milk, have increased by 75 per cent over the past twelve years, while prices for soft drinks have only increased by 26 per cent.”

These sugar sweetened beverages have no nutritional value, and have been linked to weight gain and obesity in children and adults. They are also associated with an increased risk for chronic disease.

While she is not advocating for the complete removal of SSBs from store shelves, Buhler thinks that an effective intervention would be to implement a tax to make it more expensive to purchase sugar sweetened beverages. She believes that, by making the prices for milk and soda more comparable, people will be more willing to purchase healthier beverages.

“Research tells us that this kind of financial disincentive has proven to be successful in reducing consumption of unhealthy products, such as tobacco,” Buhler says. Interestingly those who consume the largest quantities of SSBs are most sensitive to price changes and therefore would likely have a larger decrease in consumption.

She wants to share her research with government, advocacy groups and policy makers to help fuel interventions that will change the environment to support healthy choices. Currently, the financial structure of beverage pricing does not support healthy choices. Through financial disincentives, Buhler hopes that Alberta can begin to see a decrease in SSB consumption, and also potentially generate new revenue which could support a wellness foundation dedicated to health promotion and chronic disease prevention strategies.

“I want people to be aware of their consumption levels and the possible implications,” she continues. “If consumption is decreased, the risk of chronic disease from SSBs could be reduced. That means that over time we could see an increase in positive health outcomes of Albertans which reduces the health burden on our society.

“SSBs are a big problem and by working together with government and advocacy groups we could see change around how food is marketed and how food environments can be changed to influence healthy choices.”