By Jondi Gumz, Santa Cruz Sentinel
Researchers found 45 percent of Santa Cruz County adolescents ages 12-17 daily drank a soda, energy drink or sports drink sweetened with sugar in 2009-2012, down from 51 percent in 2005-2007, based on California Health Interview Survey data.
The figures were provided by researchers to the Sentinel because the study focused on consumption statewide and in the 15 largest counties, a group that does not include Santa Cruz.
Statewide consumption among teens rose from 60 percent in 2005-07 to 65 percent last year.
Of the large counties, only Ventura saw a decline in consumption from 62 percent to 52 percent. San Joaquin County saw a jump from 70 percent to 80 percent.
Sports and energy drinks are gaining in popularity, chosen by 38 percent, up from 31 percent two years ago, but soda remains the most popular despite a slight drop from 43 percent to 41 percent.
In contrast, fewer of California's younger children ages 2-11 drink a sugar-sweetened beverage daily, from 37 percent in 2005-07 to 27 percent last year.
"It's very positive that consumption among younger kids has gone down," said Harold Goldstein, co-author of the study and a leader in the movement to address childhood obesity and diabetes. "Parents are learning how unhealthy sugary drinks are. They make the buying decision."
Data from 2009 show 29 percent of Santa Cruz County youth have diabetes or are pre-diabetic, up from 9 percent a decade ago.
"When you combine calories with liquid, it overwhelms the pancreas and sugar is converted to fat in the liver and causes diabetes," Goldstein said.
He is troubled by millions spent on marketing sugary drinks to teens.
"For a 20-ounce drink labeled 65 grams of sugar, divide the grams by four, that's how many teaspoons of sugar," Goldstein said. "Imagine putting 16 teaspoons of sugar in your coffee ... We've created a toxic environment for our young people."
Selfa Saucedo, a manager at Ventura County's public health department, credits the change to a five-year campaign involving 90 organizations to "Rethink Your Drink." She said parents were surprised to learn "products they think are healthy are as sugar-laden as soda, some of the energy drink, sports drinks and bottled water with flavors."
The American Beverage Association, at its website www.letsclearitup.com, contends fructose, a main ingredient in beverages, has no significant effects on weight gain.
Goldstein disagrees, saying "There is growing research that sugar is highly addictive."
He cited the book "Sugar Salt Fat" by New York Times reporter Michael Moss on how soft-drink companies calculate the combination of sugar, flavor and carbonation to achieve the "bliss point" crave customers.
In Santa Cruz County, United Way organized the Go for Health coalition to address childhood obesity and promoted "52-10," which stands for five fruits and vegetables, two hours or fewer of screen time, one hour of vigorous play, and 0 sugar-sweetened beverages.
Jovenes Sanos, a group of Watsonville teens advocating healthier food choices at markets and restaurants, has earned statewide recognition.
Members of the group volunteered at Watsonville's first Family Fitness Challenge Day on Sept. 29, where United Way handed out water to families participating in soccer, tennis, Zumba, martial arts, biking and basketball.
Jasmin Castalan, 17, a member of the Santa Cruz Youth Council, said the soda habit can start with parents "if the parent feeds the child soda."
Connor Williams, 18, another Youth Council member, learned about sugar and soda at Food What?!, a youth empowerment program run by Life Lab.
His preferred beverage is fresh-squeezed lemonade.
Follow Sentinel reporter Jondi Gumz at Twitter.com/jondigumz
AT A GLANCE
BREAKING THE Soda habit
This chart shows the percentage of youth drinking one or more sugar-sweetened beverage a day.
Age group 2005-07 2009-12
Children ages 2-11 31% 18%
Adolescents ages 12-17 51% 45%
SOURCE: UCLA Center for Health Policy Research