Will This Soda Give Me Pancreatic Cancer?

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People who drink more soft drinks are more likely to develop pancreatic cancer, claims a new study from Singapore.  The researchers followed about 60,000 people for around a decade, and found that those who consumed more soft drinks–around 5 drinks per week–were 85 percent more likely to develop pancreatic cancer than those who abstain from soft drinks.

It might seem surprising that a non-radioactive, tobacco-less, industrial waste-free product could cause cancer.  Sure, it makes you fat and gives you cavities, but cancer?  The theory is that the mega-doses of sugar contained in these beverages trigger our bodies to release higher levels of insulin, the hormone that regulates sugar levels.  Insulin is created in the pancreas and triggers pancreatic cells to divide.  Each time a cell divides, the chances of its offspring developing a cancer-causing mutation increase.  So more sugar causes more mutations in pancreatic cells, which leads to more pancreatic cancer.

That’s the theory, but the research into the link between soft drinks and pancreatic cancer is contradictory–some studies confirm a link, some studies refute it, and some studies go so far as to find that even fruit juices are linked to pancreatic cancer.  This particular Singaporean study was well-designed and its conclusion is believable.  It is not, however, as dire as headlines make it sound.

While the study did find that soft drinks increased the rate of cancer, let’s look at that increase.  The people who didn’t drink soft drinks had a rate of about 3 in 10,000 cases of pancreatic cancer per year.  The 85 percent increased risk this study found means that soft drinks increase the annual rate of pancreatic cancer among soda drinkers to about 5 in 10,000.  Not particularly dramatic.   Furthermore, the researchers did not find that fruit juice, which contains about as much sugar as soft drinks, was linked to pancreatic cancer.

So, should you stop drinking soda?  Yes, but not because of the risk of pancreatic cancer.  You should mostly stop drinking soda, as this video shows, because it’s just incredibly disgusting how much sugar there is in a can of coke.  Don’t let nutrition labels deceive you, “carbohydrates” means sugar, and a “single serving” is sometimes only two-thirds of what’s in the can.  So a Coca-Cola Classic label advertising 27 grams of carbohydrates per serving actually contains about 40 grams of sugar in a 12 ounce can.  That’s the equivalent of ten of the sugar packets you’d put in your coffee.

Replacing sodas with fruit juice doesn’t solve the problem.  Even completely natural fruit juice, made from pesticide-free fruits picked by free-range hippies with the dawn’s pure dew still glistening on their skins, contains about as much sugar as soft drinks.  A single glass of fruit juice combines the sugar from several fruits, usually without the fiber that helps make whole fruit so healthy.  And despite that, manufacturers still add sugar.  Their labeling can be confusing: fruit juice means 100 percent of the contents come from fruit, while fruit drinks, fruit beverages, and fruit cocktails contain added ingredients–usually sugars and fortifiers.  A juice box (8.45 ounces) of unsweetened apple juice contains 25 grams of sugar.  That’s about the same amount in an identical volume of Coca-Cola Classic, 28 grams of sugar.

I was surprised to find the American Academy of Pediatrics has a policy on fruit juice (and on trampolines and ATVs!  Sounds like some fun committee meetings).  They state children under six months shouldn’t drink any fruit juice, children from six months to six years should drink less than six ounces (the volume of half of a can of soda), and children older than six years should drink less than twelve ounces of fruit juice a day (the same volume as a full can of soda).  They worry that the amount of sugar in fruit juices can contribute to childhood obesity, as well as malabsorption syndromes, chronic diarrhea, and cavities.

Ironically, sports drinks and vitamin water, which are marketed specifically for their health benefits, aren’t much better when it comes to sugar content.  That bottle of Gatorade (602g) you drink after kickboxing class contains 32 grams of sugar–about eight of the sugar packets you’d add to your coffee.  No wonder it’s so hard to lose weight at the gym.  For a typical workout, water and a healthy diet give you all the hydration and electrolytes you need. You’re shooting yourself in the foot if you’re trying to lose weight through exercising, and then drink a sports drink afterwards.

Similarly, vitamin water is actually sugar water.  Sure, there are a few sprinkles of additional vitamins, but that’s like the parsley that comes on the side of the jumbo burger deluxe with French fries.  You don’t need those extra vitamins if you’re eating a healthy diet.  While a bottle of vitamin water might only advertise 13 grams of sugar per serving, realize that there are 2.5 servings in a bottle.  That’s as bad as a bottle of sports drink, and almost as bad as a can of soda.

Regardless of your feelings about a slight increase in your risk of pancreatic cancer, there are plenty of good reasons to quit drinking sugary beverages–not just sodas, but fruit juice and other supposedly healthy drinks.  Combine the possible risk of pancreatic cancer with the known negative impacts of sugar on much more common diseases-obesity, diabetes, cavities-and you’ve got a really good reason to put down that bottle.  The real message about soft drinks, fruit juices, and other sugary drinks is that while they might slightly increase your risk of pancreatic cancer, they’re unhealthy for much more common reasons.

Originally posted on The Faster Times.

Gregg Miller, MD is a board-certified emergency room physician.

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gregg miller

Hi Jesse, That’s a great question.  I think the jury’s still out on the overall health impact of diet soda. On the one hand, diet soda doesn’t have sugar, so logically it seems like it won’t have the same negative health effects as regular soda.  On the other hand, studies (Framingham Heart Study, MESA) have found that people who drank diet soda still have an elevated risk for metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Those studies can only show correlation, not causation.  But some researchers wonder if diet sodas may end up increasing sugar intake by ‘desensitizing’ us to sweetness. … Read more »

Jesse
Jesse

Is Diet soda any better?

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