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New Research on Sugary Drink Consumption by Teenagers in Europe and Ireland

A new study published by the Health Promotion Research Centre, NUI Galway which notes the link between sugary drink consumption, tooth decay and obesity has just been published.

It examines 16-year trends in sugary drink consumption between 2002 and 2018 among European teenagers (11 – 15 years old). Results from the World Health Organization surveys ‘Health Behaviour in School-aged Children’ (HBSC) 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2018 were used to inform the research.

Daily consumption declined in all the 21 European countries included in the research, but Ireland has emerged as the country with the sharpest decline of 37% (2002) to 5.7% (2018) of daily consumers. Interestingly the biggest drop during this period in Ireland is between the years 2002 and 2006 (14%).

It is good to see that the study also examined the consumption of diet soft drinks as these also contribute to poor oral health. This is due to the presence of acidic additives such as phosphoric acid (a preservative used instead of sugar) which has a low pH that weakens and softens tooth enamel causing tooth erosion. If this progresses to an advanced stage, it can expose the soft pulp inside the tooth.

When considering the term ‘sugar-free’ for diet soft drinks it is important to understand that it does not mean that it is tooth-friendly.

The authors of this study conclude that ‘public health interventions should discourage daily soft drink consumption, particularly among adolescents from lower socioeconomic groups’, we suggest that this should include also diet drinks. Additionally, public health interventions should include a common risk approach in relation to oral and general health, including advice on diet and reduced sugar intake because of the links between diet and tooth decay. Tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease and significantly impacts the health and wellbeing of a child.

As highlighted in this research the food and drinks that children are given in the early years will influence their food choices as they grow up, highlighting the need to intervene early. This is especially important for those who are from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. The research shows that in Ireland, 11% of children in the lowest social class group reported intake of sugary soft drinks on a daily basis versus 4% of children from the highest social class groups.

Professor Colette Kelly from the Health Promotion Research Centre at NUI Galway, and co-Principal Investigator of the Irish Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study, said, “while we welcome this substantial reduction in frequency of consumption of soft-drinks, choosing water or milk is the healthier choice for adolescents.”

In the Republic of Ireland where approximately 71% of the population has access to fluoridated tap water through the public water supply, tap water is the best option rather than bottled water. Drinking tap water that contains fluoride, helps prevent tooth decay. Children living in areas with fluoridated tap water have less tooth decay than children whose water is not fluoridated (Fluoride and Caring for Children’s Teeth (FACCT) Study). Milk is an important tooth-friendly drink also, it contains calcium which is a building block for healthy teeth and bones.

The consumption of soft drinks provides a significant source of added sugar to the diet and research suggests that it contributes around 5% to the average total energy intake in men aged 19-24 years. The World Health Organization 2015 guidelines on sugars intake for adults and children recommend adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to below 5% or roughly 6 teaspoons per day for the prevention and control of unhealthy weight gain and dental caries.

It will be interesting to see the results from the next HBSC survey which will be carried out this year and if behaviours continue to change in the right direction. It is research like this that can influence political interest in oral health which is clearly necessary as highlighted by the recent study by McAuliffe et al 2022, which can be read here.

Source: Dental Health Foundation Ireland

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