Soft drinks

Consisting largely of water, with small proportions of acids, carbon dioxide, colourings, flavourings, sugar and/or sweeteners and preservatives (plus, in some cases, vitamins and minerals, and/or a bit of fruit juice), soft drinks are some of the ultimate ‘value-added’ consumer products of our time.

  • The World Health Organisation has found that overconsumption of sugar contributes to the world’s major chronic diseases – cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.
  • Sugar, and the acids present in soft drinks, are bad news for teeth as well – even the British Soft Drinks Association says sugar drinks should be consumed sensibly in order to avoid damaging teeth, and that children in particular should avoid consuming them outside mealtimes.
  • There are health concerns over consumption of artificial sweeteners, too.
  • From an environmental point of view, the major issue with these products is the amount of one-off disposable packaging created for them – packaging whose function is as much to promote the brand as to deliver the drink itself.
  • The energy required to transport heavy liquid long distances is also a problem.

Fruit juice, smoothies, milk and soya drinks

These drinks are much healthier for us than soft drinks – but not necessarily any better from an environmental point of view. Packaging (see below) is the major issue, along with transport – liquid is heavy, and some fresh products need refrigerated transport as well.

  • Fruit juice is lighter to transport than the whole fruit – but usually has more packaging. Which option is environmentally better is, frankly, anyone’s guess.
  • With some fruit juice there is the option of buying organic or fair trade varieties, and thus supporting positive change in the world. Children are paid miserably low wages for picking Brazilian oranges, for example, and in 1998 UK government tests showed residues of a toxic herbicide on 57% of oranges. Fair trade juice (more information from Fairtrade Foundation) gives a guarantee of at least minimum environmental and labour standards.
  • If you have the choice, buying organic milk-based drinks supports higher countryside management and animal welfare standards.
  • Soya drinks and other milk substitutes may be better for your health; they also avoid animal exploitation and bring the nutrients straight to the consumer instead of feeding the soya beans to the cow first. However, soya production has impacts on both the environment and people, especially indigenous tribes in Brazil. Soya was also one of the first crops to be genetically modified in vast quantities – if you’re concerned about genetically modified crops, selecting only GM-free soya drinks is a good way to cast your consumer vote, and GM-free soya will have lower environmental impacts.

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