06/18/2012 12:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Healthy Soda Shines in the Midst of Sugar Epidemic

A few months ago, my husband decided to give up sugar. He and I thought that being sugar-free might boost his immune system and help cure his atmospheric allergies. Almost immediately he started feeling more energetic, his memory improved, he noticed a stronger feeling of energy balance and clarity, his allergies improved and even though he wasn't trying to, he lost a pants size.

Watching his positive results, I reflected on all the times I've read and heard how refined sugar suppresses the immune system, and how it causes you to gain weight. Since our children were born I've kept sugar out of the pantry and out of their diets. I study labels and won't buy anything with sugar or chemicals in it. If any part of a food or beverage was developed in a lab, it doesn't come into our home or go into our bodies. Considering how much I exercise and that the rest of my vegetarian-based diet is so clean, I didn't think the small amount of sugar that I occasionally took in was affecting me much. But I decided to give it up to support my husband and to see what my own personal results might be.

I too noticed more clarity and energy balance, I started sleeping better and I lost 17 pounds in one month. I was stunned. Had such seemingly small amounts of occasional sugar really been affecting me that profoundly?

HBO is currently airing a special series entitled The Weight of a Nation, and the statistics they share about the effects of sugar and weight are astounding.

  • In 1900, The U.S. Public Health Service began tracking the leading causes of death in America. That year they were: 1) pneumonia from influenza, 2) tuberculosis, and 3) diarrhea. Today, obesity is a significant contributing risk factor to five of the 10 leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and kidney disease.
  • 12 ounces of Coke has 10 teaspoons of sugar, but so do apple juice and grape juice. And 12 ounces of orange juice has eight teaspoons of sugar.
  • Of all children born in 2000, 1 in 3 will become diabetic at some point in their lifetime.
  • More than 66 percent of people with arthritis are overweight. Overweight people are 84 percent more likely to develop kidney disease, and 80 percent more likely to develop dementia.

The series does an excellent job of highlighting why large segments of the population don't make healthier choices. Many of those reasons come down to lack of education, the availability of healthy foods, particularly in the school system, and the overabundance of advertising of sugary foods and beverages directed to children. Apparently parents still have a hard time saying no to their kids.

But there is also a larger segment of the population who have been educated on healthy food choices and who have access to good foods. So I wondered, why aren't these people making better food and beverage choices?

Part of it, I learned, is the good marketing of select food and grocery companies which would have us believe that certain foods and beverages are good for our bodies, when they aren't. Every day I see countless people downing foods and beverages sweetened by laboratory chemicals like aspartame, splenda (sucralose) and acesulfame or sugary sweeteners like fruit juice, honey and corn syrup, all the while thinking they're ingesting healthy alternatives to sugar, but they're not.

My curiosity about the effects of sugar and the availability of healthy alternatives continued and I began to think about companies who develop some of these truly healthy alternatives. So I reached out to Paddy Spence, CEO of Zevia, a healthy soda company, about his beverage line. I chose Zevia because I was particularly impressed that the ingredients in their sodas were so clean -- no chemicals, no food dyes, no sugary sweeteners, and the taste of their sodas are so extraordinary. I wanted to know what motivated them to do it right. Turns out it is personal experience and a strong sense of responsibility.

No stranger to the health food marketplace, Spence is a former vice president of marketing for Kashi, CEO of Nature's Gate, and founder of one of the natural food industry's first market research firms, SPINS. "Soda doesn't have to be a four-letter word anymore," said Spence with a smile in his voice. "We want people to know that they can still enjoy drinking a soda on a hot summer afternoon, because now there really is a healthy alternative available."

It would be easier and cheaper for Zevia to choose sugary sweeteners for their line, instead of the stevia they currently use, but Spence won't do it. Spence is aware that consumers have a growing concern regarding the effects of chemical sweeteners, and he considers himself among that group, so he won't use those either. He is deeply convinced of the benefits and the necessity of making a healthy, sugar-free soda available to the public.

When his wife faced a personal health challenge, she decided to give up sugar. To support her, Paddy did as well. He took a look at his diet and realized that through the so-called healthy fruit juices and smoothies he was drinking, he had easily been ingesting 250 grams of sugar a day. To his surprise, being sugar-free gave him more evenness in his energy levels, he felt better and he lost 15 pounds in the first month. Watching his wife's health challenges resolve and seeing the positive changes in his own experience, convinced Spence that sugar-free is the way to be.

As a former mainstream soda lover from his childhood, Spence knows how easy it is to make unconscious food choices. But he also knows how easy it can be to make one tiny change and choose a healthy alternative which can drastically improve your health. "Our goal is to get Zevia to the public where it's easily accessible. We want people to realize that they don't have to give up soda, because now there's a smarter choice available."

Zevia is well on their way to accomplishing that goal. Their 15 flavors are currently available at more than 10,000 stores nationwide, including Whole Foods, Kroger, Target, Sprouts, Sunflower Farmers Market, Henry¹s, Fred Meyer, Earth Fare and natural and specialty food stores and grocery stores nationwide, and of course, They're working to expand their distribution through healthy vending machines, cafes and other venues. They've been featured on CNN, Inc.,, and in the Wall Street Journal and O: The Oprah Magazine. They also work extensively with the American Diabetes Association, nutritionists and fitness and health professionals to support public education about the dangers of sugar, sugary sweeteners and chemical sweeteners.

Meanwhile, the topic of sugar, sugary soft drinks and obesity hit the national landscape this week in a big way. Mayor Bloomberg, mayor to the nation's largest city, is proposing a ban on sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces from being sold at restaurants and other venues in an effort to combat obesity. Ultimately anyone in New York can make another trip to the soda fountain to purchase another soft drink. But Mayor Bloomberg is hoping that the time and effort required for that second trip will make New Yorkers stop and think about what they're putting in their bodies. He also believes that smaller containers will help people to consume less. This is not the first time the mayor has taken on the soft drink industry, and the city is currently running an educational campaign to show New Yorkers how sugary drinks lead to obesity and diabetes.

Zevia agrees that the Mayor's initiative sends the right message and they're currently running an ad campaign to let people know that there is a healthier soda choice available.

So, choosing good foods and beverages for ourselves comes down to education, personal motivation and availability of good foods and products. You really can't rely on what's written on the front of the box or bottle -- words like "all-natural" and "organic" don't mean that the all-natural or organic nutrient itself is good for you. After all, arsenic can be all-natural and can be naturally occurring without pesticides so it's organic, but you wouldn't want it sprinkled on your dinner tonight.

You have to do your research to know which ingredients are good and which will make you sick. Sugar and chemical sweeteners don't have any redeeming benefits for your body. And you have to be the advocate for your body and its overall health.

I'm hoping that one day there will be a warning label on all products containing sugar and chemical sweeteners, much like the labels on tobacco products. It ought to read: "The sugar and chemical sweeteners in this product will make you sick and fat and ultimately they will kill you." Well, maybe that language is too strong. Or considering that nearly 70 percent of our nation is overweight or obese, maybe that language isn't strong enough. Because tragically, or perhaps fortunately, obesity, as well as all of the diseases that come as a result, is preventable.


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