Who doesn’t love a cold sweet beverage after a long hard day of work? Soft drinks (also called soda, pop, or cola, depending on where you grew up) are an incredibly popular sweet treat around the world. Great for having on special occasions like birthdays and celebrations, increased access to sugary drinks over the past few decades has led to a significant increase in their consumption amongst all age groups. But with an average of 16 teaspoons of added sugar per one 20 oz (595 mL) soft drink, it is becoming apparent that our overindulgence in soft drinks is leading to the development of many different health conditions¹.
Contributing to the ever-growing global diabetes and obesity epidemics, it turns out that regular consumption of sugary beverages is also contributing to a rise in a more sinister health condition.
Looking to learn more about the impact our diet has on our overall health, recent research has been conducted to better understand the connection between excessive sugary drink consumption and the earlier development of colorectal cancer. Defined as cancer that primarily impacts the colon (the large intestine) and rectum, colorectal cancer has been proven to be on the rise in younger age groups². Representing 7.9% of all new cancer cases in America, colorectal cancer is a growing concern that we may only be making worse with our daily beverage choices³.
While researchers are still unsure what specifically is causing the sudden spike of colorectal cancers in younger adults, increased pressure to investigate the impact of increased sugar consumption has been felt throughout the entire medical community. Wanting to find a successful way to reduce the number of cases of colorectal cancers before they even begin, new research in this field may help to reshape our current understanding of cancer prevention.
So how much sugar is too much, and what can we do to reduce the risk of developing colorectal cancer in the future?
As the third most commonly diagnosed form of cancer around the world, it is projected that over 2.2 million more cases of colorectal cancer will be diagnosed globally by the year 2030⁴. Primarily found in the large intestine (which is broken down into the ascending, transverse, descending, and sigmoid colon) and rectum, colorectal cancer is often associated with intestinal growths called polyps.
Polyps are defined as small intestinal growths that can be found in the inner lining of the colon and rectum. While many polyps are benign in nature, over multiple years it is common for polyps to develop into malignant tumours. The risk factor for a polyp to become cancerous is dependent on a variety of factors, including the type of polyp, your unique genetic makeup, size, and the number of polyps located in a particular area of the colon⁵.
As a part of the digestive system, colorectal cancer symptoms primarily impact the health and function of the gastrointestinal tract. Some common examples of colorectal cancer symptoms include⁶:
Diarrhoea or constipation
Profound abdominal bloating
Bleeding from the rectum
A lump forming in the abdomen
Black or bloody stool
A feeling of fullness without eating
Weight loss with no explanation
Just like every other type of cancer, colorectal cancer is classified by stages depending on the severity of the disease. Using this classification, a lower stage number indicates a less severe form of the disease that is most likely easier to treat. The five stages of colorectal cancer include⁶:
This is the earliest stage of colorectal cancer. At stage 0, the cancer cells are localised to cells of the inner layer of the colon or rectum.
In this stage, the colorectal cancer cells have grown past the inner layer of the colon or rectum, but have not gone past the walls of the large intestine.
By stage 2, the cancer cells have grown to or through the wall of the large intestine or rectum, but have not reached any nearby lymph nodes for additional spreading.
In this stage, cancer has left the colon and rectum and has reached the nearby lymph nodes. To be diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer, there has to be no proven spread to additional organs.
As the worst stage of the disease, people diagnosed with stage four colorectal cancer have had malignant spread of the disease to organs outside of the colon and rectum. The organs most commonly impacted by colorectal cancer spread are the lungs and liver.
As colorectal cancer continues to rise around the world, it appears that not every country is impacted to the same extent. Countries like Canada, Australia, The United Kingdom, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Japan are some of the countries more heavily affected by colorectal cancer, with an average of greater than 32.2 cases of colorectal cancer for every 100,000 age-adjusted people⁴. On the flip side, countries like India, Mongolia, Mexico, Nigeria, and Botswana have significantly fewer cases of colorectal cancer, averaging less than 5.4 cases out of every 100,000 people⁴.
While more research is still needed to be done in order to better understand the true cause of colorectal cancer, it appears that diet and exposure to sugary beverages may play a role in increasing a person’s risk for developing this disease.
Sugar, which is both a naturally occurring and added ingredient in many foods, adds a delicious sweet taste to our food. For most of human history, the majority of our sugar intake came from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains used to make bread and other carbohydrate-based dishes. But, with the onset of the anti-fat movement in the 1960s and 70s, many food manufacturers began to add sugar into their food to enhance the flavour of their products that now were expected to contain less overall fat⁷. Since then, modern foods are now absolutely saturated with added sugars, adding extra hidden calories that are contributing to the rise of obesity around the world.
So just how much-added sugar is the average person eating and drinking on a daily basis? Unfortunately, the number is significantly higher than most people think. According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion in The United States, the average American adult consumes over 17 teaspoons of added sugar every day⁸. While a large amount of this sugar comes from sweet treats and processed foods, it has been shown that up to 47% of the average American’s daily sugar intake comes from sugary beverages like soft drinks, energy drinks, fruit juices, and alcoholic beverages⁹.
The massive popularity of sugary beverages has truly taken off over the past fifteen years. Historically, soft drinks were the primary sweet beverage available for purchase at your local grocery or convenience store — but now, the choices are seemingly endless. With new and exciting flavours and brands of energy drinks, electrolyte sports beverages, bottled coffees, vitamin waters, and fruit juices available on the market every single day, our modern society is absolutely saturated with sugary beverage choices. Our choices have grown so exponentially, that over the past fifteen years, soft drinks sales have decreased while sales of other types of sugary drinks have more than doubled¹.
So how does drinking more sugary beverages increase my risk of developing colorectal cancer? Researchers are still trying to find the specific cause. But new breakthroughs in research into the subject is bringing to light just how dangerous regular consumption of sugary beverages maybe for our overall health, in a multitude of different ways.
In a study conducted in 2021, over 100 women were asked to fill out food frequency surveys every four years to determine the amount of sugar-added beverages they consumed during adolescence and adulthood¹⁰. Once collected, it was found that women who drank an average of two or more servings of sugary beverages a day had more than doubled their risk of developing colorectal cancer when compared to the women who drank less than one serving of sugar-added beverages a day.
In another 2021 study, the life-long impacts of sugary beverage consumption in adolescence were examined to better understand a person’s risk factor of developing colorectal cancer at a young age¹¹. Analyzing the simple sugar and sugar-added beverage intake of a group of adolescents in 1998, over the next thirty years it was found that the group who consumed more sugary beverages were at a significantly higher risk of developing colorectal cancer (particularly rectal adenoma).
As more research is done to better understand the connection between sugary beverages and the risk of the early development of colorectal cancer, it appears that our global society may need to reevaluate our cravings for a daily soda or sugary coffee. Making these changes have been proven to have a positive impact on our current health, but they may also have long-term positive effects that we are yet to fully understand.
With all of this information in mind, it is time for us to reassess our relationship with added sugar (particularly added sugar in our favourite sweet beverages). Just like every other part of health, starting with identifying health disparities is a great place to start when it comes to making a global health initiative to reduce the impact of sugary beverages.
Currently, 65% of low-income Americans consume at least one sugary beverage on a daily basis¹. Due to the lower cost of many sugary drinks across America (with large value menu drink choices offered at many fast-food locations), low-income Americans are 20% more likely to regularly consume sugary beverages when compared to higher-income earners¹.
This issue is also present amongst cultural groups as well. While 46% of Caucasian Americans consume sugary beverages on a daily basis, these numbers skyrocket to 65% and 68% in Black and Mexican American populations across the country¹.
So with many people already entering early adulthood with increased health risks due to genetic predisposition, limited access to medical care, and societal prejudice, offering additional support to low-income and disadvantaged populations regarding the dangers of sugary beverage consumption is a great place to start.
Looking to promote healthier drink choices for both children and adults, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has launched a campaign called “Rethink Your Drink” to encourage more mindful thinking when it comes to choosing your daily beverages.
Providing information about the average amount of sugar contained in a single sugary beverage, the initiative also offers helpful tips for anyone looking to cut back on their sugar consumption and cravings¹²:
Add natural flavour — For many people, the bold sugary flavours of soft drinks are part of the driving factors behind their choices. If you are looking for great ways to cut back, try adding some natural flavours to your water! Added fruits like lime, blueberries, raspberries, or cucumber can help to make your water a bit more exciting to drink.
Stock up on water — It is incredibly tempting to stock up on your favourite sugary beverages every time you are at the grocery store. Instead, try filling your fridge with reusable containers of water. This way, when you are thirsty, you will have a cold and healthy beverage waiting for you.
Avoid extra sugar at the coffee shop — We all love our daily coffee, but is your coffee more sugar than caffeine? Making healthier choices by ordering low-sugar coffee options without additional flavour syrups and whipped cream is a great way to cut back on added sugars.
Read the nutritional labels — When shopping for groceries for yourself and your family, taking time to read the nutritional labels on the beverages you are bringing into the house is a great way to limit the amount of added sugar your family is consuming.
Stay hydrated — A great tip for beating sugar cravings is staying hydrated! Our body is almost always in need of additional hydration, so be sure to carry a water bottle around with you throughout the day to stay hydrated and healthy.
While making the switch to less sugary beverages is no easy task, making a conscious effort will have a positive impact on your current and future health.
Sugary drinks in america: Who's drinking what and how much? | Healthy Food America
What is colorectal cancer? | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Cancer stat facts: Colorectal cancer | NIH: National Cancer Institute
What is colorectal cancer? | The American Cancer Society
Colorectal cancer: What you need to know | Medical News Today
Cut down on added sugars | Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
Rethink your drink | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The author, Claire Bonneau, is a medical writer and certified trauma operating room nurse.