Sugary Drinks

Sugary drinks (also categorized as sugar-sweetened beverages or “soft” drinks) refer to any beverage with added sugar or other sweeteners (high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, fruit juice concentrates, and more). This includes soda, pop, cola, tonic, fruit punch, lemonade (and other “ades”), sweetened powdered drinks, as well as sports and energy drinks.

As a category, these beverages are the single largest source of calories and added sugar in the U.S. diet. [1,2] In other parts of the world, particularly developing countries, sugary drink consumption is rising dramatically due to widespread urbanization and beverage marketing. [3]

Pile of sugar cubes

How sweet is it?

There are 4.2 grams of sugar in a single teaspoon. Now, imagine scooping up 7 to 10 teaspoons full of sugar and dumping it into your 12-ounce glass of water. Does that sound too sweet? You may be surprised to learn that’s how much added sugar is in the typical can of soda. This can be a useful tip to visualize just how much sugar is in your drink. To get you started, we’ve prepared a handy guide to the amount of sugar and calories in popular beverages.

Aside from soda, energy drinks have as much sugar as soft drinks, enough caffeine to raise your blood pressure, and additives whose long-term health effects are unknown. For these reasons, it’s best to skip energy drinks. The guide includes sports beverages as well. Although designed to give athletes carbohydrates, electrolytes, and fluid during high-intensity workouts that last one hour or more, for everyone else they’re just another source of calories and sugar.

Drinks naturally high in sugar like 100% fruit juices are also featured. While juice often contains healthful nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, it should also be limited as it contains just as much sugar (though from naturally occurring fruit sugars) and calories as soft drinks.

Sugary drinks and health

When it comes to ranking beverages best for our health, sugary drinks fall at the bottom of the list because they provide so many calories and virtually no other nutrients. People who drink sugary beverages do not feel as full as if they had eaten the same calories from solid food, and research indicates they also don’t compensate for the high caloric content of these beverages by eating less food. [4] The average can of sugar-sweetened soda or fruit punch provides about 150 calories, almost all of them from added sugar. If you were to drink just one of these sugary drinks every day, and not cut back on calories elsewhere, you could gain up to 5 pounds in a year. Beyond weight gain, routinely drinking these sugar-loaded beverages can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases. Furthermore, higher consumption of sugary beverages has been linked with an increased risk of premature death. [5]

Sugary drink supersizing and the obesity epidemic

There is sufficient scientific evidence that decreasing sugar-sweetened beverage consumption will reduce the prevalence of obesity and obesity-related diseases. [29] Unfortunately, sugary beverages are a regular drink of choice for millions around the world, and a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.

pouring sugary beverage into glassCompounding the problem is that sugary drink portion sizes have risen dramatically over the past 40 years, leading to increased consumption among children and adults:

  • Before the 1950s, standard soft-drink bottles were 6.5 ounces. In the 1950s, soft-drink makers introduced larger sizes, including the 12-ounce can, which became widely available in 1960. [30] By the early 1990s, 20-ounce plastic bottles became the norm. [31] Today, contour-shaped plastic bottles are available in even larger sizes, such as 1-liter.
  • In the 1970s, sugary drinks made up about 4% of U.S. daily calorie intake; by 2001, that had risen to about 9%. [32]
  • Children and youth in the US averaged 224 calories per day from sugary beverages in 1999 to 2004—nearly 11% of their daily calorie intake. [33] From 1989 to 2008, calories from sugary beverages increased by 60% in children ages 6 to 11, from 130 to 209 calories per day, and the percentage of children consuming them rose from 79% to 91%. [34] In 2005, sugary drinks (soda, energy, sports drinks) were the top calorie source in teens’ diets (226 calories per day), beating out pizza (213 calories per day). [2]
  • Although consumption of sugary drinks in the U.S. has decreased in the past decade, [35] half of the population consumes sugary drinks on a given day; 1 in 4 people get at least 200 calories from such drinks; and 5% get at least 567 calories—equivalent to four cans of soda. [36] These intake levels exceed dietary recommendations for consuming no more than 10% of total daily calories from added sugar [37]
  • Globally, and in developing countries in particular, sugary drink consumption is rising dramatically due to widespread urbanization and beverage marketing. [3]

The role of sugary drink marketing

soda advertismentBeverage companies spend billions of dollars marketing sugary drinks, yet generally rebuffs suggestions that its products and marketing tactics play any role in the obesity epidemic. [38]

  • In 2013, Coca-Cola launched an “anti-obesity” advertisement recognizing that sweetened soda and many other foods and drinks have contributed to the obesity epidemic. The company advertised its wide array of calorie-free beverages and encouraged individuals to take responsibility for their own drink choices and weight. Responses to the advertisement were mixed, with many experts calling it misleading and inaccurate in stating the health dangers of soda.

Adding to the confusion, studies funded by the beverage industry are four to eight times more likely to show a finding favorable to industry than independently-funded studies. [39]

It’s also important to note that a significant portion of sugary drink marketing is typically aimed directly at children and adolescents. [40]

  • A 2019 analysis by the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that kids ages 2-11 saw twice as many ads for sugary drinks than for other beverages, and they also saw four times as many ads for certain drinks than adults did. [41] Researchers also analyzed nearly 70 “children’s drinks” (those marketed to parents and/or directly to children), and found that sweetened drinks contributed 62% of children’s drink sales in 2018, including $1.2 billion in fruit drinks (90% of children’s sweetened drink sales) and $146 million in flavored, sweetened water sales.

Cutting back on sugary drinks

When it comes to our health, it’s clear that sugary drinks should be avoided. There is a range of healthier beverages that can be consumed in their place, with water being the top option.

Of course, if you’re a frequent soda drinker, this is easier said than done. If it’s the carbonation you like, give sparkling water a try. If the taste is too bland, try a naturally flavored sparkling water. If that’s still too much of a jump, add a splash of juice, sliced citrus, or even some fresh herbs. You can do this with home-brewed tea as well, like this sparkling iced tea with lemon, cucumber, and mint.

sugar free label on a can of soda

What about “diet” sodas or other drinks with low-calorie sweeteners?

Low-calorie sweeteners (LCS) are sweeteners that contain few to no calories but have a higher intensity of sweetness per gram than sweeteners with calories. These include artificial sweeteners, such as Aspartame and Sucralose, as well as extracts from plants like steviol glycosides and monk fruit. Beverages containing LCS sometimes carry the label “sugar-free” or “diet.” The health effects of LCS are inconclusive, with research showing mixed findings. A 2018 scientific advisory by the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association noted that further research on the effects of LCS beverages on weight control, cardiometabolic risk factors, and risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases is needed. That said, they also note that for adults who are regular high consumers of sugary drinks, LCS beverages may be a useful temporary replacement strategy to reduce intake of sugary drinks.
Learn more about the research on LCS in foods and beverages.

Action beyond the individual level

Warning against drinking sugary beveragesReducing our preference for sweet beverages will require concerted action on several levels—from creative food scientists and marketers in the beverage industry, as well as from individual consumers and families, schools and worksites, and state and federal government. We must work together toward this worthy and urgent cause: alleviating the cost and the burden of chronic diseases associated with the obesity and diabetes epidemics in the U.S. and around the world. Fortunately, sugary drinks are a growing topic in policy discussions both nationally and internationally. Learn more about how different stakeholders can take action against sugary drinks.


Healthy Drinks
Public Health Concerns: Sugary Drinks
Spotlight on Soda
Healthy kids ‘sweet enough’ without added sugars

Last reviewed August 2023

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