Food Stamps Pay for $2.1 Billion of Sugary Drinks per Year

A new study shows the deeper problem behind sugary drinks

Turns out, the New York City large soda ban may be indicative of a bigger problem: who's buying the sugary drinks. New research shows that more often than not, it's government food stamp programs that are paying for the sodas. 

The Los Angeles Times reports on a new study by Yale University researchers that finds that SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) buys between $1.7 billion and $2.1 billion worth of sugary drinks each year. The researchers analyzed data using supermarket loyalty cards, which helped determine what SNAP and WIC (the Women, Infants and Children federal food program) consumers were buying. Of the "refreshment beverages" that SNAP members can buy — that includes soft drinks, bottled water, 100-percent juice, fruit drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, ready-to-drink coffee and tea, and more — 58 percent of the drinks purchased were sugar-sweetened drinks. And the researchers think that the numbers could be a gross underestimate, as it only found data between the months of January, 2011 and June, 2011, and didn't account for summer months. 

The real problem with the data, the researchers say, is the unaligned government policy on sugary drinks: don't drink the stuff because it's unhealthy (if you live in New York City, anyway), but use SNAP dollars to buy it. But changing the rules might not work anyway. Barbara Laraia of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health wrote in an accompanying commentary that soda purchases might be replaced with other "energy-dense" foods if sodas were restricted from government food stamp programs. "A second major criticism affecting restrictions on SNAP benefits is that these send a paternalistic message: that it is OK to restrict what poor Americans purchase with federal dollars, presumably because they do not know any better," she wrote.