O.K., so Osama bin Laden isn't scheming to release corn syrup in the New York subways. But that's because he doesn't need to: Americans are guzzling it themselves — every year, the average American drinks 56 gallons of soda.
The major sweetener in pop is high-fructose corn syrup, which is also found in everything from ketchup to hot dog buns. Americans over the age of 2 get an average of 132 calories a day from high-fructose corn syrup.
Our fat is one of the most important public policy challenges we face. It kills 112,000 Americans a year, adds $75 billion to our health bill, drives up insurance costs and erodes our economic competitiveness.
A few days ago, the latest national nutritional survey found that two-thirds of adults are overweight, and one-third of children are now overweight or on the brink of becoming so.
Earlier this year, a medical journal warned doctors that their injections are often ineffective, because American rumps are now so massive that a standard needle frequently cannot reach muscle through all the blubber.
So hats off to the bipartisan group in Congress that last Thursday introduced legislation that would ban unhealthy foods like French fries and soft drinks from the nation's schools. That legislation, if passed, would save more American lives than anything else this Congress is considering.
It makes no sense to enforce restrictions on lead paints while allowing children to ingest other debilitating substances, particularly sugary drinks like Coke, Snapple and Gatorade (parents often think that sports drinks are healthy, but their added sugars and calories are the last thing many kids need — kids need sports, not sports drinks). This is also an antipoverty measure, for obesity is highly correlated to poverty and also compounds it.
Sugary drinks now account for one-sixth of the calories we ingest. They are particularly problematic because there's evidence that calories in beverages don't give us feelings of fullness that we get from the same number of calories in food.
Barry M. Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says that when kids snack on Cheetos, that at least spoils their appetites so that they eat less at meals. But when they chug Coke, they absorb as many calories — and it doesn't spoil their appetites.
"If you're having dinner, and you have wine or water or soft drinks, it won't affect the amount of food you eat," Professor Popkin said. He added, "Beverages are treated differently by our bodies from other classes of food."
It's more speculative, but high-fructose corn syrup may be a particular problem. Some studies indicate that the body metabolizes fructose differently from other sugars, so that the body is slower to get the message that it should stop eating. There's also a circumstantial case against high-fructose corn syrup, because it began to be used widely in the 1970's, just when American stomachs started ballooning.
So what do we do?
First, we should ban sugary drinks from schools. As George Bray, an obesity expert at Louisiana State University, notes, "Those 'beverage contracts' that school districts have entered into to obtain money are equivalent to selling our children's health for school income."
Second, we should curb advertising of sugary drinks, especially when it is aimed at children.
Third, we should impose a tax on sugary drinks — 5 cents per fluid ounce. One of the most successful health measures this country has ever taken was the cigarette tax, and we should apply the same approach to beverages. All sweetened nondiet drinks would be targeted: soft drinks, iced tea, fruit punch, sports drinks and other concoctions like the 240-calorie Starbucks Caffe Mocha (not counting the whipped cream).
What's the bottom line on these drinks? An extra 100 calories a day, all things being equal, adds about five pounds a year to one's weight. For America as a whole, that amounts to an extra 750,000 tons of fat per year — so maybe it isn't the seas that are rising, but America that is sinking.
Most of the debate on our national health crisis has focused on financing, and indeed we need universal health care. But it's equally important to change Americans' diet and exercise habits — and the first step to do that is to fight our addiction to sugary drinks.