An educator in Sydney says drinking six energy drinks a day has “eaten away” his tongue, Metro reported last week (warning: picture in link may be considered graphic). Dan Royals recently uploaded a picture of his damaged tongue on social media, claiming a visit to the doctor verified his concerns that chemicals in the high-sugar drinks had corroded it. Is his case unique or representative of soda culture?
Sugary beverages are often associated with health problems—especially obesity-related ones. Modern sodas are infused with a number of chemicals and secret ingredients that can contribute to weight problems, diabetes, and other ailments. It’s hard to believe that most modern sodas we know today were sold in pharmacies by the pharmacists who invented them. Dispelling the myths around soft drinks can help us understand Royals’s unnerving situation.
Energy Drinks – A Brief History of Soda
Companies in America have been bottling and selling soda since at least the early 19th century, but its real roots trace back all the way to the 5th century B.C.. “As ancient people discovered natural effervescent spring waters, they were fascinated with the fizzing element,” said Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “The Greek physician Hippocrates, around 400 B.C., asserted that mineral water could cure disease. In 216 B.C., Hannibal stopped his mass of troops on their way to fight the Romans to rejuvenate them with fizzing spring water of Les Bouillens, France—and this is the same source of Perrier bottled water today.”
These beliefs evolved until soda fountains became a part of American pharmacies in the 1800s. Quaker pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires began selling root beer extract in packets in the 1880s, leaving consumers to add in sugar, water, and yeast to make the famous beverage. “For five years, he was selling enough extract to make 1.5 million drinks,” Dr. Crittenden said.
Similarly, Dr. Pepper was invented in 1885 in Waco, Texas, when a young pharmacist named Charles Alderton made a hobby of mixing and selling soda from the pharmacy’s soda fountain to customers in his spare time. As he tried new combinations of flavors, he wrote them in a journal and eventually found one to his liking. According to Dr. Crittenden, Alderton later handed off his recipe to his boss, Wade Morrison, and recommended he find a drink chemist to partner with. Morrison met Robert Lazenby and the two debuted Dr. Pepper at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis—although it shared the spotlight with stiff competition. “The soda wasn’t the only newcomer to the fair,” Dr. Crittenden said. “Hamburgers and hot dogs were served on buns for the first time. An ice cream cone made its debut to the masses in attendance.”
Health Complications of Energy Drinks and Soda
“A 12-ounce can of soda typically contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar—about 150 calories,” Dr. Crittenden said. “And all soda calories come from sugar. It’s due to this high-sugar content that soda is now considered to be a main contributor to the global obesity pandemic.”
Soda is also made with high fructose corn syrup, which correlates with not only obesity but also type-2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other health problems. Even diet sodas, which use sugar substitutes, may merely trick the human body into thinking it’s consuming sugar, thus increasing insulin output and contributing to obesity.
Increasing health concerns have prompted political action—and backlash—around soda. In 2013, Michael Bloomberg, then-mayor of New York City, “proposed a ban on the sale of non-diet soft drinks larger than 16 ounces except in convenience stores and supermarkets,” Dr. Crittenden said. It was widely controversial and soda companies weren’t going down without a fight. A lawsuit was filed by restaurant owners and other businesses claiming the Health Department was exceeding its authority. One opponent of the ban was a special interest group called New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, who put up ads around the city decrying the ban as government overreach. The group is partly composed of soda manufacturers and sellers, including Coca-Cola Refreshments USA, Inc.; AMC Entertainment, Inc.; Pepsi Cola Bottling Co. of New York, Inc.; and Regal Entertainment Group. The ban eventually disappeared.
Managing sugar intake is vital to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Soda has been a part of American culture for over 200 years and isn’t going away anytime soon. So, to avoid obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even dissolving tongues, moderating our sugary drinks is a safe bet.
Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Medicine. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego.