Tufts University's Dr Odilia Bermudez studied information obtained from the 1999 to 2000 National Health and Nutrition Survey and found that 67 percent of respondents reported drinking as much as three servings of soda or sweet drinks each day.
"Now soda accounts for 14 percent of total energy, and that is surprising," Dr Bermudez told NutraIngredients-USA.com.
Previously white bread was identified as the main energy contributor in the American diet, accounting for between five and six percent of calories consumed. Although white bread is not a good food compared with other more nutritious foodstuffs, this was seen as a preferable state of affairs since sweet drinks are nothing more than empty calories.
"If sweet drinks are displacing bread, they are also displacing other foods below bread," said Bermudez. "We can assume that people are eating less of other nutritional foods."
Despite this, she does not advocate bridging the nutrition gap through wholesale replacement of sweet drinks with functional or fortified alternatives because of the quantities that are being consumed.
Replacing three cups of soda a day with fortified or functional beverages could result in over supplementation of the population, she said, as there is currently no across-the-board advice as to quantities that can be safely consumed.
The findings may also indicate that not as many people are becoming aware of the connection between diet and health as media reports may suggest.
Only 13.5 percent of respondents said they drink orange juice, the most healthy soft drink, and 13 percent drink low fat milk. Both groups were less likely to be obese, but these percentages were considerably lower than expected.
Nonetheless, Bermudez said that the survey could encourage the industry to take a long, hard look at how they advertise food and drink products with little or no nutritional value, as well as serve as a tool to help educate consumers about how to obtain the most nutritional benefit from calories consumed.
This message was key to the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published in January of this year. Although she hopes that these, as well as the new food guidance system known as MyPyramid, will help improve the nation's diet, Bermudez believes there is scope for the government to introduce more initiatives.
Dr Bermudez's initial findings were presented at Experimental Biology in March and more controlled analysis currently underway using same data looks set to deliver the same results.
Although more recent data have been gathered, they are not available for use in the current analysis. Given the continuing increase in obesity rates in the US, Dr Bermudez said she would expect these to show similar trends.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 64 percent of adults age 20 years and over are overweight or obese. In recent months the industry voices have pronounced a link between obesity and malnutrition.
In December Patricia McPeak, CEO of NutraCea and member of the California obesity-prevention committee told NutraIngredients-USA.com that malnutrition is the main problem faced by the US because of its eating habits.
"I have discovered that obesity is a disease of malnutrition and that we need to nourish the body back to health, not starve it," she said.