Do Coke and Pepsi Cause Violent Behavior in Kids?

It's a study conclusion New York City's Mayor Bloomberg would probably appreciate: Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) and PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP  ) are turning our kids into violent thugs.

According to research conducted by professors at Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Vermont, kids who drink lots of soda are more likely to engage in hurtful or damaging behavior. The researchers found that more than 40% of the 3,000 5-year-old children involved in the study enjoyed at least one soft drink per day, while just 4% had four or more in a given day. The study found that "the child’s aggressive behavior score increased with every increase in soft drinks servings per day."

A pretty damning conclusion that will undoubtedly bring more politicians ever willing to jump on a bandwagon to call for greater regulation of soft drinks. Only problem is, despite the study's pedigree, even the study's authors admit they can't identify the nature of the link between soft drinks and problem behaviors.

As a number of critics have pointed out, the study is rife with flaws, from a lack of control groups to no standardization of serving sizes. The researchers left it up to parents to self-report what behaviors their child was exhibiting, which lends itself to exaggeration, minimization, or even lying, and they failed to take into account any underlying, preexisting medical conditions like ADD.

While no one suggests soda is good for you, the beverage has been the subject of numerous studies, not all of which are as valid as the media that hypes them would have you believe. For example, despite some studies making claims to the contrary, there's not much scientific evidence behind the notion diet soda causes weight gain or leads to poor cardiovascular health, although the hubbub was undoubtedly part of the reason Pepsi reissued its "throwback" style of soda a couple of years back, the one that uses real sugar instead of artificial sweeteners like aspartame.

Ironically, there's not much scientific question that sugar does cause health problems and lead to weight gain, though I don't that I think aspartame is better for you. Coke, however, recently began running ads defending its use of the sweetener, arguing it's both safe for consumption and is healthier for you.

As more people drink less soda, beverage makers resort to campaigns to stem the tide. Coca-Cola experienced flat volumes in its sparkling beverages division last quarter compared to 6% growth in still beverages, while Pepsi reported beverage volumes in its Americas division fell 3.5% despite the contribution of a 3% price increase.

But that's not to say soda is the culprit of violent behavior. Highly caffeinated drinks like those made by Monster Beverage (NASDAQ: MNST  ) have come under similar attacks with equally flimsy evidence. Monster was accused of causing the deaths of two people, but as with the flawed soda studies, contributing factors were ignored in favor of going after a company with deep pockets. In the case of the 14-year-old girl who died after consuming two 24 oz. energy drinks in a 24-hour period, she had a preexisting heart condition that the drink labels clearly warn about. As for the 19-year-old man who died of a heart attack during sex, he routinely consumed between 32 oz. and 64 oz. daily!

The fact is, if taken to extremes, even water can kill you. In a condition known as "hyponatremia," if you drink too much water, the body's sodium supply is diluted to such an extent that the kidneys can't flush the water out fast enough.

Although I've given up drinking soda for dietary reasons, I'm not really concerned that my neighbor's kid is going to turn into Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre because he drinks a couple of cans of Coke.


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