A study—if you can call the unpublished abstract of not-yet-peer-reviewed research a “study”—presented at an American Heart Association (AHA) conference purports to implicate soda consumption in 180,000 deaths worldwide. Even taking the claim at face value, the supposed toll from soda is less than one-tenth the real toll from complications from consuming contaminated water, linked in a separate recent UN report to over 2 million deaths. And while the activists salivate over new talking points, some problems with even the little we know about the research are immediately apparent.
A quick refresher: Mokdad was the lead author of a 2004 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study that precipitated some of the first hysterias of an “obesity epidemic.” In it, Mokdad and his co-authors claimed that 400,000 Americans died of being obese or overweight each year and that obesity would become a greater cause of death than smoking. It was a shoddy document: Just correcting the team’s errors in mathematics caused a reduction in estimated deaths of 20 percent. More reliable research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested Mokdad et al. had overestimated the combined toll from overweight and obesity by over 90 percent.
The data is often limited in research on so-called “actual causes of death,” like Mokdad’s two studies and this AHA conference abstract. Consider a CDC review panel’s assessment of Mokdad’s U.S. research (emphasis added):
The paper published by Mokdad, et al., Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000, has provoked significant controversy both inside and outside the agency. […] the fundamental scientific problem centers around the limitations in both the data and the methodology in this area.
As for today’s supposed soda bombshell, we don’t even have the full explanation of the methodology and the paper hasn’t undergone rigorous peer review. We’d wager that the researchers used a Mokdad-like methodology and Mokdad-like data constructions to tease out whatever they could use to ship talking points to Bloombergist would-be soda regulators. Far from a compelling indictment, it looks like doubling down on a discredited method.
So in the absence of compelling counter-evidence, the “old rules” still apply: When it comes to obesity and overweight, what matters is the balance of calories consumed and calories burned, not particular products.