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Soda pop elbows aside milk, water

(ran TP edition)

The problem with soda pop is less its sugar content than its domination of America's beverage landscape. U.S. Department of Agriculture food consumption figures over the past two decades show a radical shift in America's beverages of choice, especially among young people. Teens in the late 1970s drank almost twice as much milk as pop. By the late '90s those figures had reversed: 12- to 19-year-olds were drinking 40 percent less milk but twice as many soft drinks.

That's the age when the body is able to stockpile calcium to last it a lifetime, but the youth of America is squandering this one-time-only offer.

"That's the time they are going to lay down all the calcium in their bones," said William Evers, a professor of nutrition at Purdue University. "From about age 25 on the best they can do is to decrease the rate at which calcium leaves their bones, no matter how much milk they drink or calcium they consume. It is very difficult to build up calcium in the bones after age 30."

If young people don't get enough dairy products, most of which are excellent sources of calcium, there is a definite risk of osteoporosis in later years, Evers says.

Even before pop, which has no calcium but lots of sugar, became their drink of choice, young women weren't getting enough calcium, Evers says, so the flood of soda spells real trouble as Baby Boomers reach their 60s.

Critics such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which coined the sobriquet "liquid candy," dislike soft drinks' dependence on sugar. An average can of pop contains 7 teaspoons, or a fifth of the recommended maximum sugar consumption for a teenage boy or a little less than a third of that for a girl.

Compared to the calcium problem posed by pop, "sugar is not a big concern of mine," Evers says. "It's just calories." Getting sugar from pop may even be preferable to getting it from high-fat foods, such as candy bars.

Calcium isn't the only casualty, says Edith Hogan, a dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. People who fill up on pop miss out on other nutrients supplied by real food.

"I call it "nutrient jeopardy,' " Hogan says. "It won't kill you, but your body has only so much capacity. Young people have a need for calcium and other nutrients as well as caloric energy."

Soft drinks are usually cheaper than milk and fruit- and vegetable-based beverages, and they are readily available. Many schools make money on pop machines stationed in cafeterias, though some restrict access, but pop is pretty much everywhere. Even after school lets out and the stores close, glowing pop dispensers stand in strip-mall parking lots.

"An area of big concern to me is the fast-food arena," says Christine Rosenbloom, associate professor of nutrition at Georgia State University in Atlanta, who works with many young athletes. "Several outlets offer unlimited trips to the soft drink fountain for free refills. I see kids drinking as much as 2 liters of pop (about 5{ cans). With 22 percent of American kids obese, that's a problem.".

Young athletes who exercise heavily have a constant need to replenish liquids, she says, but if they drink soda instead of water they can be taking in hundreds of extra calories.

"Whatever happened to plain water?" Rosenbloom asks. Though you wouldn't know it from the numbers of bottled waters clutched by health-conscious people, municipal water sources in the United States are pretty clean and cheap, sometimes thousands of times less expensive than what comes in liter bottles.

Some water companies have been enhancing the water even more with flavors _ and sugar.

"I call that flying under the radar," Hogan says. "Some beverages are clear and colorless and seem to be only water, but they have up to 2 tablespoons of sugar, so they are not low-calorie."

At least one brand of water that seems to enjoy some popularity, Water Joe, has added caffeine _ no sugar, just water and caffeine _ which is fine if you are using it for a coffee substitute.

There also has been an increase over the last few years in the number of bottled coffees, teas and caffeinated sodas, all of which young people have latched onto.

"They're using caffeinated soft drinks for a wakeup," Evers says. "That may be what adults do, but it doesn't make it a great idea. Caffeine may not be a big problem in moderate amounts, but it can be habit forming and, over time, may affect heart rate, sleep and concentration."

Caffeine is a diuretic. It causes you to eliminate water, so, if you are drinking Water Joe to replenish liquids, you'll get diminishing returns, Rosenbloom says.

"It is a myth that drinking caffeinated beverages actually causes you to lose more water than you take in the drink," Evers says, "but you do retain less liquid than if you were drinking pure water or milk or fruit juice."

"Of course, there's nothing so terrific about fruit juices either," he adds, especially the blends on supermarket shelves. "They still are high in sugar and certainly don't have all the properties of fresh fruit, especially the fiber."

People need the equivalent of at least 8 glasses of water a day, Rosenbloom says. The best way to do that is to turn on the tap or at least pick a bottled beverage that has nothing but water inside.

"If you want to sparkle it up, use a slice of fresh lemon or lime," Rosenbloom says. "If you drink a glass of cola, then match it by drinking a glass of plain water as well."