In Defense of Warning Labels

As has been reported elsewhere, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has asked the FDA to put warning labels on those lethal killers that are the scourge of breakrooms everywhere - soda. Enough has been written already as to why this is a bad thing, but let me, if I may, explain why this libertarian doesn't care.

Warning labels have become so ubiquitous, there are a gaggle of websites, books, etc. devoted to pointing out the never-ending list of stupid warnings on things from band-aids to silly putty. There are golf carts with labels stating "Not for highway use". There are boxes of nails that read: "CAUTION! - Do NOT swallow nails! May cause irritation!" These are so ubiquitous that I'm sure that in the past 40 years of the label revolution, we've become totally desensitized to any notion that a product could actually cause real harm.

I get concerned for my safety when a product doesn't have a label stating that this thingamajig could kill me and my family. It's a sign that said product has escpaed the scrutiny of an in-house legal team, the federal government, the CSPI, and the Superfriends. No label means it's likely made by some shady company - a big fat "WARNING!" means it's good to go.

So I say Coca-Cola needs to slap a label in place of it's brand name that reads "This Can Can Kill You". Then I might be persuaded to drink one.

On a related, and totally serious, note, Hit and Run approvingly cited this from the American Council of Science and Health's Elizabeth Whelan as she tried to dispel several health myths related to sodas. Now, she could very well be correct about most of them, but she most certainy made a mistake in the last paragraph:

The bottom line in pondering soft drinks in the context of good nutrition and health is this: soda is mainly water -- and thus a good source of hydration. All of us need calories for energy -- the problem is not the calories per se but that many of us consume too many of them. Instead of categorizing foods, such as soft drinks, as "good" or "bad," we need to use common sense and follow the cliche: everything in moderation.

I certainly won't argue with "everything in moderation", but Whelan is way off in her characterization of sodas as "a good source of hydration" for two reasons. First, the high salt concentration in sodas make it unlikely to reverse dehydration. I won't get into the physiology of it, but it makes it unlikely that ingested water in soda will move from the bloodstream to the deydrated cells. Secondly, the caffeine in soda acts as a weak diuretic - meaning that it is a chemical that acts in the kidneys to promote making urine. Thus it actually causes dehydration. Now neither of these mean much to someone in normal day-to-day activities (the body can maintain itself well); however, someone who is truly dehydrated would be poorly served by drinking soda. There's a reason that you never see top athletes drink cokes during their games.

The point is that while I agree with ACSH that the government should stay out of our food pantries, and that a lot of disinformation is passed along by nanny think tanks, this is best not fought with disinformation and faulty reasoning as well.

Update: In the comments below, I correct an apparent error of mine:

...looking at the coke label, I ran the numbers and found, surprisingly, that it had a lower sodium conc. than blood. If this is actually true..., then my above objection no longer applies. However, the diuretic effect still does, and my overall point remains - it’s wrong to call coke a “source of hydration.”

In addition, Dr. Whelan wrote me to say that the diuretic effect of caffeine exists in "caffeine-naive" individuals and that this effect is met by adaptation from the kidney. I will look into the matter.

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I'm not a doctor, but

I'm not a doctor, but wouldn't the high sugar content of the coke itself come into play? I know that you make hypotonic environments by raising sugar concentrations (to preserve things in the lab or in the kitchen) so perhaps the added sugar load relative to blood sugar levels might cause some other problems negating the benefit from hydration (that is, the water that came with the sugar is needed to dilute the sugar in the blood, thus leaving at a net of zero or negative with regards to a hydration deficit).

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You don't often see athletes

You don't often see athletes drinking Coke, but you do see them drinking Gatorade, specifically becuase it's good for rehydrating. This should put the salt argument to rest:

Sodium content in an 8 ounce serving of Coke: 35 mg

Sodium content in an 8 ounce serving of Gatorade: 110 mg

I would also argue that, although caffeine is a diuretic, the amount of water in caffinated soda is greater than the amount of water you would lose as a result of the diuretic. So, it is a net gain.

I would agree with Michael, though. Soda really has no health benefit, and most if its ingredients probably do more harm than good. It is certainly not the *best* way to hydrate youself. But I admit, I drink it pretty much daily.

If you're striving for

If you're striving for optimal health, it's probably best to avoid sodas altogether

Why would I be striving for optimal health? Healthfulness is one desireable characteristic of food or drink among others such as taste, convenience and cost. I'd like my food and drink to be somewhat healthful, but not to the exclusion of all other values.

Yes, this is all real

Yes, this is all real interesting. But believe it or not this all has implications which bear on a commentary that Patri made a few days ago about pre filtering and post filtering.
As an individual consumer of the bounty produced by our free market system, I have noticed an anomaly which I find hard to explain. Why do all soft drinks in the US contain high fructose corn syrup, rather than your getting a choice of sucrose or fructose? It would seem that since you get this choice whether your soft drink is endorsed by Michael Jackson or Brittany Spears, logic suggests that you could choose the way you wanted your soft drink made. After all you can choose whether you want triply distilled vodka vs. quadrupally distilled, freeze, steamed vacuumed vodka made from melted glaciers, if you think you can taste the difference, and can pay for it.
The only way you can get soft drinks made with sucrose (cane sugar/beet sugar) is to go to Mexico, or Canada. This is because, due to agricultural price supports, the price of sugar in the US is three times the cost on the world market.
Evidently, the powers that be have decided that there is no marketable difference between the products made from the two types of sugar. This is a perfect example of the kind of pre-filtering Patri is talking about.
It would be different if there was no detectable difference between the products but I believe there is. I realized this when I went to Mexico and drank some of their delicious fruit flavored sodas, such as strawberry, orange, and grape, that I loved as a child. I had stopped drinking the stuff as an adult because of the sickeningly sweet taste of the American product. The Mexican product, I found, is far superior, but thanks to US government interference and decisions made by big business bean counters is not available here. You can’t really notice this as much with cola drinks.
The sucrose in cane sugar is a disaccharide, while the high fructose corn syrup is a mixture of the monosaccharide, glucose and fructose. Thus the osmotic characteristics of sodas containing the two are different, giving rise to a difference in quality compared to the original product. This is especially pronounces in people with gastroesopageal reflux, a good portion of the populace. The effects can be modified by mixing the stuff with ice, which is not always convenient. Save for the power of the kind of pre-filtering tyranny Patri is talking a I believe these natural cane and beet sugar products would be very popular.

Brian, sugars are different

Brian, sugars are different than salt in that they are all transported into the cells (save that which keeps a constant blood sugar conc). Whereas salt is mainly in the blood and the excess is excreted. These different properties means that they affect hydration differently. If you drink a super-solution of salt water, you get dehydrated because you excrete the slat and some excess water with it. If you drink a super-solution of sugar water, your cells transport (effectively) all of it inside their membranes and bring free water with it, thus hydrating them.

I think the real fallacy in

I think the real fallacy in the quote about soda is the notion that all calories are somehow equal. The calories in soda come from high-fructose corn syrup, which causes blood sugar spikes (bad for lots of reasons, including the promotion of diabetes). Moreover, sodas have no nutrients to speak of, so those calories are empty; that means, for a fixed number of calories (so that we don't have "too many of them"), you get less nutrition.

Diet sodas aren't nearly as bad, though even they are high in phosphates, which upsets the calcium-to-phosphorous ratio in the blood and may promote osteoporosis. Plus, I find it hard to trust artificial sweeteners completely.

If you're striving for optimal health, it's probably best to avoid sodas altogether.

On a typical day, Diet Coke

On a typical day, Diet Coke (caffeinated) is my sole source of hydration apart from the water content of the food I eat. (okay, and milk with cereal at breakfast). When I exercise extremely hard, I drink /more/ Diet Coke to cool down. Diet Coke appears to be sufficient hydration for my needs. Are you saying soda isn't a "good" source of hydration only in the sense that some alternative exists which is superior on some metric? If so, then I guess my VW bug isn't a "good" form of transportation and my cat isn't a "good" animal companion...

Trent McBride: Just out of

Trent McBride:

Just out of curiosity, would caffeine-free coke count as a "source of hyrdration?"

Scott’s right. Count it.

Scott’s right.

Count it.

Scott's right. The sodium

Scott's right. The sodium content of coke vs. bread is irrelevant - all we care about for the above purposes is sodium concentration of coke, and its relation to blood sodium concentration.

Now, to be fair, looking at the coke label, I ran the numbers and found, surprisingly, that it had a lower sodium conc. than blood. If this is actually true (somebody else want to give it a try?), then my above objection no longer applies. However, the diuretic effect still does, and my overall point remains - it's wrong to call coke a "source of hydration."

I believe it’s a myth that

I believe it’s a myth that soda is high in salt (and thus named for sodium). Compare labels, and you’ll see that a slice of bread contains more salt.

Wouldn't the better comparison be between soda and some other beverage?

I believe it's a myth that

I believe it's a myth that soda is high in salt (and thus named for sodium). Compare labels, and you'll see that a slice of bread contains more salt.

I haven't read the one on

I haven't read the one on this bottle, but I feel certain that there is a warning label telling me all about the risks involved in drinking from this bottle of wine. It didn't make the slightest bit of difference in my choice of products or how much to drink. The words "cabernet sauvignon" were much more important.