Jim Kenyon: DHMC ends hard line on soft drinks


Valley News Columnist

Published: 04-10-2023 2:01 PM

Coke or Pepsi? Then again perhaps Mountain Dew is your soft drink of choice. And there’s always an oldie but goodie like Orange Crush.

Compared to just a few years ago, it’s a whole lot easier now for employees, patients and visitors at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon to get their liquid sugar high.

DHMC’s ban on the sale of sugary drinks in its public dining rooms and food court that’s been in effect for more than a decade is history.

Pass the Sprite.

I know Dartmouth Health, DHMC’s parent organization, says it’s “experiencing the most difficult financial time in its history.” But peddling cold drinks loaded with sugar at the expense of people’s waistlines and organs isn’t a business that a nonprofit health care giant should be in.

The decision makes me wonder who DHMC officials are turning to for their medical advice.

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Dr Pepper?

They don’t appear to be listening to nutritional experts. Steering people away from sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soft drinks and sports drinks, is critical in the fight to reduce obesity and diabetes.

“When it comes to ranking beverages best for our health, sugary drinks fall at the bottom of the list because they provide so many calories and virtually no other nutrients,” the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health wrote in its newsletter, Nutrition Source.

“Beyond weight gain, routinely drinking these sugar-loaded beverages can increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases. Furthermore, higher consumption of sugary beverages has been linked with an increased risk of premature death.”

Last week, I asked Dartmouth Health’s media relations office the reasons behind the change of heart. I didn’t hear back.

I suspect D-H officials figure the less they say about ditching a wellness initiative that’s been in place for more than a decade, the better.

It was a different management regime in late 2011 when DHMC announced with great fanfare that sugar-sweetened beverages were no longer on the menu at its concessions, starting Jan. 1, 2012.

The Valley News splashed the story across the top of the front page. “This is consistent with our institutional mission of promoting a healthy population,” said Rick Adams, DHMC’s spokesman at the time.

It wasn’t a total ban, however. Employees and visitors could still BYOB.

By 2019, The New York Times reported, dozens of medical centers across the country, including the Cleveland Clinic and the University of Michigan Health System, had stopped selling sugary drinks.

For good reason.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “sugary drinks are the leading source of added sugars in the American diet.”

Added sugars — a main ingredient in soft drinks — are just that. They’re the “sugars and syrups added to food or beverages when they are processed or prepared,” the C.D.C’s website explains. “Naturally occurring sugars such as those in fruit or milk are not added sugars.”

When I stopped by DHMC’s dining rooms and food court last week, coolers were stocked with ice cold, sugar-laden soft drinks. (Diet soft drinks, which were never included in the ban, remained in ample supply.)

The coolers are the first thing that people see when entering DHMC’s main dining room, which makes grabbing a 20-ounce Coca-Cola for $1.80 extra convenient. (Upstairs at the food court, Au Bon Pain sells its Cokes for a buck more.)

Or to save even more money just fill a 20-ounce glass with DHMC tap water (it’s free) and throw in 12 to 15 teaspoons of sugar. The added sugar — nearly 70 grams — is roughly the same amount found in the Coke and Pepsi that DHMC is now offering.

The American Heart Association recommends men consume no more than 36 grams of added sugar per day. For women, it’s 25 grams. But adults in the U.S. consume an average of 77 grams of sugar (equivalent to a single 20-ounce Mountain Dew) per day, the organization reported.

I don’t mean to preach the anti-soda gospel. I’ve guzzled my share of Cherry Cokes (70 grams of added sugar per serving) over the years.

I’m sure some people welcome DHMC’s about-face, even if they’re not pounding Mug Root Beer (71 grams of added sugar ). People should be allowed to decide for themselves what they eat and drink, particularly in the Live Free or Die state, the argument goes.

Nannyism aside, DHMC is sending the wrong message.

“Reductions in sugar-sweetened beverage intake can improve health, but are difficult for individuals to achieve on their own” stressed a study at the University of California, San Francisco, which banned sugary drinks in 2015.

The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2019, found that workers at the health sciences center had benefited almost immediately from the ban. Within 10 months, workers who indulged in a lot of sugary drinks had cut their daily intake by about a half, which led to a “significant reduction” in their waist sizes.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the public was urged to “Trust the Science.” Fortunately many people have.

DHMC should use the same argument to encourage people to make better drink choices at mealtimes and work breaks. It’s made the argument in the past.

“The science behind the negative impact of sugar-sweetened beverages on health is strong,” a DHMC dietitian said in a full-page ad the medical center ran in early 2012.

Gifford Medical Center in Randolph implemented a ban in 2011, slightly ahead of DHMC. A Gifford spokeswoman told me last week the hospital’s “approach on sugary drinks in the cafeteria has not changed.”

That’s refreshing. Much more than a Dr Pepper.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.