A soda in a West Oakland mini-mart costs 99 cents, while an energy drink named Armor Body costs $1.29, and another, Rockstar Super Sour, costs $2.25. Orange juice costs $2.49 for a smaller bottle, and water is hard to find, tucked on a floor-level shelf, for $1.49 a bottle.
Young men drifted into the store on 23rd Street on Tuesday afternoon this week, just after school let out at the high school three blocks away. They surveyed the drinks. One commented that the $2 in his pocket is just enough to cover a bag of chips and a 99 cent soda. Another chose an energy drink.
In Alameda County, children and teenagers are consuming more soda and sugar-sweetened drinks than ever, a recent study showed, setting them up for diabetes, liver disease and a host of health problems later in life. Two out of three teenagers and one out of three children in this county consumed at least one sugar-laden drink a day in 2012, the study found.
Even as progress has been made across California in getting kids to drink fewer sugary drinks in the past five years, as epidemiologists linked them with obesity, trends in Alameda County are going the other way.
According to a study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, consumption of sugary drinks by children as young as two and up to 11 years old has increased 24 percent in Alameda County over the last five years, so that one of every three youngsters had at least one of these a day last year.
This is while, statewide, there’s been a decrease in kids’ consumption of these drinks, with children under 11 drinking 27 percent fewer sugary drinks last year than they did five years ago.
Among teenagers, though, consumption of liquid sugar is up both in Alameda County and statewide, such that two thirds of all teenagers consume at least one soda or sugary drink a day, the study found.
So what’s wrong with a sugary drink?
“Our bodies are not designed to consume that amount of sugar,” said Dr. Harold Goldstein of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, pointing out that the average 20-ounce soda or energy drink has 16 teaspoons of sugar. His center is one of the authors of the study. Because it is in liquid form, and not food, the sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream in about three minutes and not broken down into possible nutrients. “So you get this massive spike in blood sugar,” he said. The unusable sugar goes to the liver and begins develop fatty liver disease.
“We mammals consumed two liquids for most of our history: mothers’ milk and water,” and still human bodies are not engineered to know how to handle other kinds of liquid very well.
“Our bodies do not recognize calories in liquid because liquids go through a different digestive system than food. When we drink liquid, it is absorbed almost immediately into our bloodstream. Food, on the other hand, gets digested with digestive enzymes, broken down into its usable substances and is absorbed into the small intestines.”
Undigested sugar in liquid goes to the liver, where it produces a certain kind of fatty material that is a precursor to diabetes and liver damage, he said.
One sugar-filled drink a day for two weeks and you begin to develop these fatty liver disease deposits. Six months of drinking a sugary drink a day and the onset of liver damage begins. Children and teenagers are even more susceptible than adults because their tissues are soft and still developing.
Goldstein is among public health physicians concerned about the rising consumption of these drinks among kids. Diane Woloshin, the Nutrition Services Director for the Alameda County Public Health Department, is another. She said the results for Alameda County are particularly disheartening.
“Almost one of three children in Alameda County is overweight or obese,” she said, and she lays the blame partly on the marketing and pricing of these sugary energy drinks. “This is putting them at risk for serious chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke.”
“Not only does the beverage industry spend hundreds of millions of dollars marketing sugary drinks to youth — including campaigns that are digital, utilizing mobile phones — they also have developed products specifically for youth, such as sports drinks, energy drinks, sweet teas,” she said. “With over 60 brands offering more than 650 products in a wide variety of outlets, sugary beverages are everywhere.”
The UCLA study found that low-income kids of color are particularly vulnerable in that their consumption of sugary drinks is higher than for teens generally. Seventy-four percent of African-American teenagers and 73 percent of Latino teenagers have at least one sugary drink a day.
“A soda a day should not be considered typical normal behavior,” Woloshin said. “It used to be that you drank soda as a special treat, and it was a small bottle that you shared with your brother. Now it’s a 20-ounce bottle on a daily basis, and it’s hurting our children’s health.” She called on state and local officials to encourage businesses to provide healthy options.
A dearth of full-service grocery stores in poor neighborhoods is one key culprit, Woloshin and others have observed.
West Oakland residents and food justice advocates have been trying to attract a full-service grocery or supermarket to the neighborhood for years. Social entrepreneurs have been gathering the finances to build one, and after great effort, the People’s Community Market is in the planning stages. So far, though, the neighborhood has corner convenience stores and dozens of liquor stores.