Food stamp soda study: Less soda, less obesity

Food stamp soda study: A Stanford University study showed that banning the use of food stamps to buy soda, would reduce obesity. But others say that food stamp recipients would switch to cash to buy soda.

The latest salvo on the soda wars is a new study by Stanford University researchers.

The study found that if the 47 million food stamp recipients in America couldn't buy sugary drinks, such as soda, about 281,000 adults and 141,000 children wouldn't become obese. They also calculated that about 2.3 percent fewer people would be diagnosed with diabetes.

Sanjay Basu, assistant professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, and his colleagues used computerized simulations to estimate how a ban on sugar-sweetened beverages would effect those using food stamps under the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).

Here's how the study was done, according to a Stanford press release:

To create the simulation, they used dietary information that was self-reported by both SNAP recipients and nonrecipients on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a questionnaire put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They linked each person’s diet with the local cost of food, and then estimated how their eating habits would change if SNAP benefits would no longer pay for sugar-sweetened beverages. The simulation considered that some people would likely continue to buy sweetened beverages, but with their own money, while others would substitute drinks such as fruit juice, which is also high in sugar.

 “I feel this paper even underplays the significant effect of changing the SNAP benefits to ban sugar-sweetened beverages, as this would not affect all participants equally and would truly impact heavy consumers, who tend to be more obese and more likely to be diabetic,” said Barry Popkin, PhD, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, in an email.

A year ago, the mayors from 18 US cities, including New York, sent a letter to Congress seeking a ban on soda purchases with food stamps.

The mayors wrote that it's "time to test and evaluate approaches limiting" the use of the subsidies for sugar-laden beverages, in the interest of fighting obesity and related diseases.

"We need to find ways to strengthen the program and promote good nutrition while limiting the use of these resources for items with no nutritional value, like sugary drinks, that are actually harming the health of participants," then-NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said in a statement, according to the Huffington Post. "Why should we continue supporting unhealthy purchases in the false name of nutrition assistance?

Sugar-sweetened soda have no nutritional value. Food stamps programs currently ban purchases of cigarettes, alcohol, and hot food.

But others suggest that adding soda to the list off banned items would be ineffective in curbing obesity. Most people would simply switch to cash to buy soda.

“If you have sugar sweetened beverages in your cart and they weren’t allowable, just like other things aren’t allowable, at the end of your transaction the people who are paying additional cash would pay the cash for what was not allowable,” said Elissa Bassler, CEO of the Illinois Public Health Institute. She says any ban would have to be part of a larger education and incentive program, according to CBS News.

In an opinion piece in The Christian Science Monitor, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an associate professor at Northwestern University, wrote:

"Without question, the advocates for a policy to ban the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages using SNAP benefits have the best of intentions. But policymakers need to be careful not to let their zeal for combating obesity push them into hastily adopting policies that at best are unlikely to help fight obesity, and, at worst, can do substantial damage to the safety net."

The American Beverage Association, which opposes a food stamp-ban on sugary drinks has called obesity "a complex health condition that affects Americans of all income levels.... Targeting struggling families who rely on [food stamps'] vital safety net will not make America healthier or reduce government spending," the association has said.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.