Yale University researchers made a not-so-sweet discovery when examining the beverage purchasing habits of Americans on federal assistance.

According to a study published in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, more than half of the drink purchases made by those on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- formerly known as food stamps -- are for sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, fruit drinks and sports drinks.

However, at least one anti-hunger advocate worries that the study stigmatizes low-income people.

The study, conducted by researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, looked at the grocery-store purchases of 39,172 households from January through June 2011. The sample consisted of families who had a history of participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children from 2009 to 2011. About half of those studied were also on SNAP. WIC benefits can't be used to pay for sugar-sweetened beverages, but only for drinks like milk and 100 percent juice.

The study found that sugar-sweetened beverages accounted for 58 percent of refreshment beverage purchases made by SNAP households and 48 percent of purchases made by WIC-only households. About 72 percent of the sweetened beverage purchases made by SNAP households were with SNAP benefits.

Yale researchers estimated that, nationwide, SNAP benefits pay from $1.7 billion to $2.1 billion annually for sugar-sweetened beverages purchased in grocery stores. The research didn't include other retail establishments, such as convenience stores.

The study's main author, Tatiana Andreyeva, said the research is disturbing, given that sweet beverages are largely considered a major contributor to obesity problems in the country. Though she emphasized that programs like SNAP are valuable in helping low-income families put food on the table, Andreyeva said the country needs to take a hard look at the best use of these benefits.

"People are buying a lot of unhealthy beverage, and they're spending a lot of government money to do so,'' she said.

Some advocates have called for the government to take actions such as banning the use of SNAP benefits to pay for sugar-sweetened beverages. Andreyeva said more research is needed on the topic, but it's something that should be considered.

The American Beverage Association said the study showed that beverage purchases of people on federal assistance are consistent with those made by the general population.

"Importantly the authors found that the households evaluated in this paper bought the equivalent of one can of sugar-sweetened beverages per household per day -- including juice drinks, soft drinks and flavored waters -- using SNAP dollars. This amount is well within the guidelines recommended by public health organizations for an individual, let alone an entire household."

Lucy Nolan, director of End Hunger Connecticut, had some concerns about the study. End Hunger is a statewide anti-hunger and food security organization based in Hartford that often works in conjunction with Rudd. Nolan agreed with Andreyeva's assessment that sugar-sweetened drinks are a health risk and that it's upsetting to see so many sugar-sweetened beverages being purchased.

However, Nolan said, there are larger issues at play. For instance, she said these products are often marketed to low-income people. Also, Nolan pointed out that SNAP recipients often have to stretch their benefits pretty thin, and sugary drinks, which are often less expensive than fruit juice, might be considered a more economical choice.

Nolan said she's worried that the study sheds too negative a light on federal assistance. "We're at this point right now where there's a lot of ill will toward people using these programs," Nolan said. There's got to be a better approach (to targeting obesity) than singling out vulnerable people."

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