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Is This Common Item in Your Fridge Contributing to 180,000 Deaths Annually?

By Sean Williams - Mar 22, 2014 at 11:08AM

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Many of the world's leading causes of death are quite obvious, but this global killer could be lurking in your refrigerator right now!

Global obesity rates are a growing concern with World Health Organization statistics claiming that between 1980 and 2013 obesity rates have doubled. This is a primary concern since obesity is one of a number of high-risk factors linked to cancer occurrence and a number of other diseases.

We're all probably well aware of how avoiding fatty foods is in our best health interests, but we may not be aware that this common item found in our refrigerators can potentially be linked to more than 180,000 deaths annually.

Source: Marcos Andre, Wikimedia Commons.

Is trouble lurking in your fridge?
According to a study authored by postdoctoral research fellow Gitanjali Singh at the Harvard School of Public Health and released last year, sugar-sweetened beverages can be linked to more than 180,000 obesity-related deaths around the world each year.

Singh's research looked at 114 different national dietary surveys covering 60% of the world's population and studied additional medical journals to get data on how sugar-sweetened beverages affected a person's risk of death around the world. Based on Singh's findings, Mexico had the highest death rate associated with sugary drinks with the U.S. coming in third out of the 35 countries examined.

Singh's findings revolve around the idea that sugar-sweetened beverages, ranging from soft drinks to energy drinks to fruit and sport beverages, induce weight-gain which has the potential to lead to obesity and the numerous complications associated with being obese, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

One contention offered by the Harvard School of Public Health is that sugary beverages don't make a person feel "as full," allowing them to drink more and consume more sugar and food in general. We also have to take into account that serving sizes for beverages, such as soft drinks, have dramatically increased in size over the past six decades from 6.5 oz. to 20 oz. As the Harvard School of Public Health notes, a 20-oz. soda can have 15-18 teaspoons of sugar, which is already more than a typical person should consume in a day.

By comparison, the latest sugar consumption recommendations by WHO suggests that sugars should make up less than 10% of energy intake per day. In fact, WHO estimates that a daily intake of 5% or less, which equates to about five tablespoons of sugar, would have even more beneficial effects on the body.

Of course, not everyone agrees with Singh's research. The American Beverage Association released a statement shortly after this poster was released that the research was more about "sensationalism than science" The ABA's contention is that the author's made "a huge leap" contending that sugary beverages are the cause of death in patients where chronic diseases are the actual cause. 

The ABA's point does have its merits as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, for example, can develop in patients that aren't overweight -- and CV is still the leading cause of death in the United States. Still, obesity represents a daunting problem around the world, especially in the U.S., and tackling obesity in a number of different ways, including lowered sugar consumption, should only serve to improve global health.

Source: PublicDomainImages, Pixabay.

How we're fighting back
Tackling obesity isn't a simple cut-and-dried operation. It necessitates improved global awareness of the disease by people and corporations, as well as a genuine desire by those consumers and businesses to do something about it. Let's have a look at some of the unique ways that businesses are fighting back against obesity, as well as some of the unique opportunities you may have as an investor to participate in the effort to shrink global waistlines.

Perhaps one of the more obvious ways to keep sugar out of our beverages, or at least dramatically reduce its consumption, is through flavor modulation. Two companies that are currently leading this charge are Senomyx (NASDAQ: SNMX) and International Flavor & Fragrances ( IFF 2.10% ).

Last week Senomyx received positive news from the Food and Drug Administration after it found its Sweetmyx flavor ingredient to be generally recognized as safe. With this GRAS designation PepsiCo. ( PEP 0.17% ), Senomyx's exclusive partner on Sweetmyx, will be able to pursue the commercialization of this new ingredient. PepsiCo. will be using Sweetmyx as a sugar substitute in a number of new low-calorie beverages which could give it an edge over its chief rival Coca-Cola. For Senomyx, commercialization through PepsiCo. could lead to explosive revenue growth potential through royalty payments.

International Flavor and Fragrances, or IFF, has a similar mode of action. Its flavor ingredients are designed to match not only the sweetness of sugar in beverages where sugar content has been reduced or potentially eliminated, it's also designed to match the mouthfeel and or consistency of a sugar product. By successfully masking any bad tastes from removing sugar IFF could wind up playing a huge role behind the curtain in reducing obesity rates.

The other way researchers are tackling obesity related to all sorts of consumable foods, including sugary beverages, is with weight control management therapies that act as an adjuvant to proper diet and exercise.

Source: Arena Pharmaceuticals.

The two fairly new weight control management drugs approved by the FDA are Qsymia, made by VIVUS, and Belviq, developed by Arena Pharmaceuticals ( ARNA 3.89% ). Based on the clinical trials that got both Qsymia and Belviq approved just weeks apart in 2012, Qsymia offered superior weight-loss to Belviq on a percentage basis while Belviq impressed with a more favorable safety profile. Unfortunately, neither drug has impressed investors in the early going.

Following a full year of sales, Qsymia managed to bring in just $23.7 million in revenue while Arena's Belviq brought in $16.8 million through two-and-a-half quarters. We may want to give Belviq the benefit of the doubt since it only made it to pharmacy shelves about a year after Qsymia due to a delay by the Drug Enforcement Agency in scheduling the drug, but Qsymia's performance thus far has been nothing short of disappointing

What investors and patients with a high body mass index will want to keep their eyes on is Orexigen Therapeutics (NASDAQ: OREX) whose lead weight control management drug, Contrave, is currently under review by the FDA. Contrave's weight-loss and safety data was right on par with its peers save for one key difference: it is running a multi-year 9,800-person cardiovascular outcomes study known as the Light Study. Interim results from the study demonstrated that Contrave did not increase adverse events in patients taking the drug, which may allow it to one-up Belviq and Qsymia in the safety department. The Light Study could also be the key that unlocks Contrave to be approved in Europe where Qsymia failed to gain approval and where Belviq pulled its marketing application. If there's a weight-loss management company that has an opportunity to positively impact the fight against obesity, and thus its potential side effects, I think it's Orexigen.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis – even one of our own – helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.

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Stocks Mentioned

Arena Pharmaceuticals, Inc. Stock Quote
Arena Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
$54.71 (3.89%) $2.05
Pepsico, Inc. Stock Quote
Pepsico, Inc.
$166.52 (0.17%) $0.29
International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. Stock Quote
International Flavors & Fragrances Inc.
$148.16 (2.10%) $3.05

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