Sweet Drinks are Calorie-Carriers

The Calories We Quaff

The sugary caloric punch of common drinks gets overlooked, and unhealthful consumption is condoned by America’s top nutrition panel
by Craig Weatherby

Despite well-publicized campaigns to remove soda and candy machines from schools, and the average American’s vague awareness that sweet drinks are calorie-carriers, people continue to chug beverages that pack on the pounds.

A big part of the problem is the disconnect between people’s intellectual awareness of the problem, and the gut-level truth that sweet drinks simply don’t trigger a feeling of fullness.

Since sweet sodas and juices aren’t very satiating, people are unlikely to compensate for the sugar-derived calories they drink by cutting out an equivalent number of calories from food.

US nutrition authority sets sugar-friendly standards

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services say that most adults of average body mass index and activity level need to consume about 2,000 calories per day.

The HHS Dietary Guidelines note that this calorie-intake target should be adjusted up or down to account for differences in body mass index (ratio of weight to height) and activity or exercise levels.

Yet, the 2002 Dietary Reference Intake guidelines issued by the quasi-governmental Institute of Medicine (IOM), which also sets the RDAs for vitamins, endorse consumption of absurdly unhealthful amounts of foods and beverages that contain added sugars.

According to the IOM, the major sources of added sugars are “soft drinks, fruit drinks, pastries, candy, and other sweets”, which, as they acknowledge “…usually provide insignificant amounts of vitamins, minerals, or other essential nutrients”.

Their dietary guidelines offer this deeply irresponsible advice: “Added sugars should comprise no more than 25 percent of total calories consumed.”

Only in the American context–where the populace is acclimatized to drinking extremely sweet sodas and fruit juices in place of water or tea–could a scientific body with claims to credibility offer such a stunningly brain-dead standard.

How many calories do people commonly drink?

Studies show that about 20 percent of the calories in the American diet come from soda, juice and juice drinks, sports drinks and pre-sweetened coffee and tea drinks.

It seems likely that the increase in obesity is partially related to the increase in liquid calories over the past 20 years. (Some claim that this rise is related to the simultaneous rise in use of high-fructose corn syrup in place of costlier cane sugar, but the evidence proffered for this assertion is unpersuasive.)

In fact, a Harvard Medical School study found that each additional daily serving of a sugar-sweetened beverage consumed by a child increases their risk of obesity by 60 percent (Ludwig DS et al 2001).

The table below shows the calorie content of common beverages, and is conservative since sodas often come in 12-ounce bottles or the 40-oz cups pushed in fast-food chains.

As you can see, coffee-based drinks from the two major chains exceed the calorie content of soda considerably, as do sweetened fruit drinks, but the latter at least provide healthful antioxidant flavonoids.

Sugar-Added Drinks – (8 oz except as noted) Calories
Egg nog
Dunkin’ Donuts Dunkaccino (10 oz)
Chocolate milk
Tall Starbucks Frappucino (12 oz)
POM Wonderful (pomegranate cocktail)
Cranberry juice cocktail
Tropicana Orange Twister
Pineapple-grapefruit juice
Orange juice
Soda (Pepsi, Coke, Sierra Mist, etc.)
Sobe Green Tea
AriZona Green Tea drink
230 (184 per 8 oz)
190 (127 per 8 oz)
No-Sugar-Added Drinks (8 oz) Calories
Odwalla SuperFood juice
Low-fat kefir
1% milk
Carrot juice
Bolthouse Tomato-Carrot-Celery juice
V-8 vegetable juice
Tomato juice

We included egg nog, which tops the calorie list, because this article is being published days before Christmas. One 8 oz glass has about twice the sugar found in most sodas, plus about 150 calories from fat. No wonder Santa is so rotund!

It is disconcerting to see that the hottest “health” juice on the market–pomegranate-based POM Wonderful–rivals the sugar–derived calorie content of cranberry juice cocktail, which is quite sweet.

If you were to down a Frappucino and any two moderately sweet drinks in this list (i.e., containing about 110 calories per 8 oz), they’d deliver about 410 calories, or 20 percent of the 2,000 calories the average adult needs every day.

This is bad enough, but the Institute of Medicine (IOM) guidelines suggest that it’s acceptable to drink a fourth moderately sweet beverage, such as a typical 8-oz, 100-calorie soda every day, since that would only bring the proportion of daily calories obtained from added sugars to 25 percent: the IOM’s absurd recommended maximum.

With health advisors like the IOM, it’s no wonder America is in the midst of an obesity epidemic.

Alternatives to super-sweet drinks

It’s obvious that to reduce obesity risks, Americans need to avoid sugar-added drinks. Here are some tips for doing that, and for reducing the calorie load in sweetened beverages:

  • Add a teaspoon of fresh lemon or lime juice to water
  • Drink fruit-flavored, unsweetened bottled water
  • Drink vegetable juices instead of fruit juices and fruit drinks.
  • Make your own low-calorie “soda” by adding seltzer to fruit juice.
  • Cut the calories in fruit juice or soda by adding water or ice.
  • Drink low-fat or skim milk.
  • Drink coffee with low-fat milk
  • Sweeten beverages with safe, natural non-caloric sweeteners like stevia.

Note: Drinks sweetened with non-caloric sweeteners (natural or otherwise) are not shown to help weight control, and synthetic non-caloric sweeteners such as sucralose, aspartame, and saccharine may pose health risks.

Good luck in the battle of the bulge …we’ll drink a toast to our collective success with some tasty, low-cal tomato juice!


  • Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. National Academies Press, 2002. Accessed online December 20, 2006 at http://www.iom.edu/?id=12702.
  • US Department of Health and Human Services. 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Accessed online December 20, 2006 at http://www.healthierus.gov/dietaryguidelines/
  • Ludwig DS, Peterson KE, Gortmaker SL. Relation between consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks and childhood obesity: a prospective, observational analysis. Lancet. 2001 Feb 17;357(9255):505-8

*Article courtesy of Vital Choice Seafoods