Harvard Study Links Soda And Youth Violence

This article is more than 9 years old.
(Russell Bernice via Wikimedia Commons)
(Russell Bernice via Wikimedia Commons)

Calling Mayor Bloomberg! There's a hot new data point out of Harvard to help bolster your ban of Big Gulps!

Harvard Magazine does a very nice job here reporting a researcher's unexpected finding that drinking soda is correlated to violent behavior in young people. It reports:

In a study of 1,878 students at Boston public high schools, heavy soda drinkers were much more prone to violent behavior than other teens.

That finding came about by accident. While seeking to document the incidence of violent behavior among the high-school students, professor of health policy David Hemenway, who directs the Harvard Injury Control Research Center at Harvard School of Public Health, agreed to incorporate unrelated (or so he thought) questions about nutrition at a colleague’s request.

Analyzing the survey, he found surprising correlations. Heavy consumers of nondiet soft drinks—students who had drunk five or more cans in the week preceding the survey—were more likely to have behaved violently toward peers (57 percent, versus 39 percent of respondents who drank less soda); to have behaved violently toward another child in their own families (42 percent, versus 27 percent); to have behaved violently in a dating relationship (26 percent, versus 16 percent); and to have carried a gun or a knife during the past year (40 percent, versus 27 percent). The strength of the effect was on par with the correlation (well known among researchers) between these behaviors and alcohol and tobacco use; in some cases, the correlation with soda was stronger.

Harvard Magazine commenters promptly attacked the findings, pointing out that correlation does not equal causation and that it's highly likely that a third factor — say, poor parenting — explains both the violence and the soda-drinking. I found myself wanting to say: Lay off, guys. This is just an interesting finding and the researchers are by no means claiming that soda causes violence. They're exploring the implications further, Harvard Magazine writes, including possible mechanisms:

If there is a cause-effect relationship, the researchers speculate that excess caffeine and sugar (along with the subsequent blood-sugar crash) may leave soda drinkers irritable and prone to aggression; or maybe those who drink soda in place of healthier food miss out on nutrients that promote a calmer demeanor.

Personally, my reaction is influenced by my recent discovery that some cans of soda I had stored in a low cabinet had spontaneously exploded and created a festering mess that slowly dripped through the ceiling of the basement to pool like old blood on the basement floor. I would no longer put anything past the odd chemical admixtures that are sold to us as beverages. Anything that can blow through an aluminum can over time is no longer welcome — even in small quantities — in our family menu....

This program aired on October 24, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.




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