The study backs up research from organizations such as the International Bottled Water Association, which says Americans are drinking more bottled water than any other packaged beverage – outselling carbonated soft drinks by volume for the first time in 2016.
However, the Harvard study also notes that adolescents and young adults still consume more than the recommended amount of SSBs set by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and levels of sugar sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption are ‘persistently highest’ among black, Mexican American, and non-Mexican Hispanic individuals, who are also at higher risk for obesity.
‘Turning point’ in US diets
Published in the journal Obesity, researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health used data on beverage consumption from the Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES): covering 18,600 children aged 2 -19, and 27,652 adults aged 20+, in NHANES 2003-2014.
Participants were quizzed on their consumption of seven beverage categories: SSBs, diet beverages, 100% juice, milk and flavored milk, unsweetened coffee or tea, alcohol and water.
Overall beverage and SSB consumption declined for both children and adults.
In 2013-2014, 60.7% of children reported drinking SSBs on a given day, down from 79.7% in 2003-2004.
For adults, 50% reported drinking SSBs on a given day in 2013-2014, down from 61.5% in 2003-2004.
“This overall decline in both beverage and SSB consumption is consistent with previous literature, suggesting a recent ‘turning point' toward lower energy intake in the US diet,” wrote the researchers in the study.
“This is potentially attributable to widespread discussion and media coverage of the role of certain foods (such as SSBs) in promoting obesity, changes to food allowances within the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, improvements to school feeding programs, and product reformulations by food manufacturers and retailers.
“From an energy balance perspective, it is encouraging that children and adults are consuming fewer calories from beverages, as liquids have lower satiety and are less well compensated than calories from solid foods.”
Water up, diet drinks down
Meanwhile, consumption of 100% juice 'declined significantly' among children aged 12-19 years old, as did consumption among those aged 60+.
The increase in water consumption "suggests that messages about drinking non-calorie beverages are having an effect," says lead author Sara N. Bleich
Water consumption increased across all age groups, and no significant changes were seen in the consumption of alcohol.
Among children, there were no significant changes in consumption of coffee, tea, milk or diet beverages.
Among adults, diet drink consumption 'decreased significantly' among those aged 20-59 years old.
Disparities in SSB consumption
However, SSB consumption remained highest among black, Mexican American, and non-Mexican Hispanic adolescents - groups at higher risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes.
“Although our results suggested that SSB consumption is declining overall, they also highlighted the need for reducing disparities in SSB consumption by race and ethnicity,” continues the study.
It says that current public health efforts - such as taxes on sugar sweetened beverages - may help address this.
In 2014, Berkeley, California passed the first SSB tax in the US. Last year, a number of other jurisdictions followed suit, such as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Boulder, Colorado; San Francisco, California; Oakland, California; and Albany, California. Seattle also passed a SSB tax in June this year.
“In Berkeley, California and Mexico where evidence is available, the data suggests that the taxes have a larger impact among low-income households or neighborhoods,” says the study.
Meanwhile, targeted policies that aim to reduce SSB consumption among high risk groups will be an important strategy for the future.
“Another way to encourage greater consumption of healthier beverages - such as water - could be through procurement policies, which place restrictions on the types of beverages that can be made available for purchase in places such as schools, worksites, or government institutions.
"These healthy beverage procurement policies may have the added benefit of catalyzing the beverage industry to reformulate beverages to meet a healthier profile (such as flavored water rather than soda).”
Source: Sara N. Bleich, Kelsey A. Vercammen, Jonathan Wyatt Koma, Zhonghe Li. 'Trends in Beverage Consumption Among Children and Adults, 2003-2014. Obesity, 2017'; DOI: 10.1002/oby.22056