Soda has already been blamed for making kids obese. New research blames the sugary drinks for behavioral problems in children too.
Analyzing data from 2,929 families, researchers linked soda consumption to aggression, attention problems and social withdrawal in 5-year-olds. They published their findings in the Journal of Pediatrics on Friday.
Although earlier studies have shown an association between soft-drink consumption and aggression in teens, none had investigated whether a similar relationship existed in younger children.
To that end, Columbia University epidemiologist Shakira Suglia and her colleagues examined data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which followed 2,929 mother-child pairs in 20 large U.S. cities from the time the children were born. The study, run by Columbia and Princeton University, collected information through surveys the mothers completed periodically over several years.
In one survey, mothers answered questions about behavior problems in their children. They also reported how much soda their kids drank on a typical day.
Suglia and her colleagues found that even at the young age of 5, 43% of the kids consumed at least one serving of soda per day, and 4% drank four servings or more.
The more soda kids drank, the more likely their mothers were to report that the kids had problems with aggression, withdrawal and staying focused on a task. For instance, children who downed four or more servings of soda per day were more than twice as likely to destroy others’ belongings, get into fights and physically attack people, compared with kids who didn’t drink soda at all.
Even after adjusting for the potential influence of socioeconomic factors, maternal depression, intimate partner violence and other environmental variables, the researchers still saw a strong association between soda consumption and behavior. “That was pretty striking to us,” Suglia said.
But the study has its limitations, she noted. For one, it relies on self-reported data, which can be unreliable. Furthermore, it doesn’t prove that soda causes behavioral problems in kids.
“It’s possible there’s something else associated with child behavior and soda consumption that we just didn’t account for,” she said. “The study should be interpreted with caution.”
In a future study, Suglia hopes to determine whether certain types of soda have a stronger link to behavior problems than others — for example, regular versus diet, or caffeinated versus non-caffeinated.
This information could allow researchers to home in on the ingredients in soda that may be playing a role. Suglia suspects caffeine could be a culprit, since earlier studies have shown that caffeine is associated with impulsive behavior and nervousness in children and adolescents.
The new findings add to mounting evidence of soda’s negative health effects.
“We already know soda is not the healthiest option for kids,” she said. “This is another reason to be concerned and to limit soda among adolescents and younger children.”