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EarthSave NEWS
Vol 18 No. 4
EarthSave promotes a shift toward a healthy plant-based diet.
December 2007

Sugar Finds Its Way Back to the School Cafeteria

STUNG by harsh publicity about fat kids and threatened with lawsuits, the nation’s three largest beverage companies finally got some love last year when they voluntarily agreed to remove sugary drinks from schools.

In the place of soda and sugar-laden beverages, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Cadbury Schweppes agreed that only water, low-fat milk and 100 percent juice would be offered in elementary and middle schools. In high schools, sports drinks, light juices and diet drinks would also be allowed. The announcement was brokered by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a collaboration of the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, and it was widely praised. Former President Bill Clinton, who attended the press conference, called the decision “courageous.” “Shrewd” was probably a better word.

The truth is that full-calorie soda would have been forced out of schools eventually, either by litigation or legislation. And the beverage companies were lucky to get sports drinks in the deal since many nutritionists believe there is no reason for kids to be drinking them unless they are vigorously exercising. But that wasn’t the end of it. After the deal was signed and the editorials written, the beverage makers sought a change. Under the original terms of the agreement, only sports drinks and light juices with no more than 66 calories per eight ounces were allowed to be sold in high schools. But because of a quietly executed amendment in late April, “other drinks” with no more than 66 calories per eight ounces are now allowed.

By doing so, the beverage companies opened the door for beverages like Vitaminwater and Propel, both considered enhanced water, to be sold. Sports drinks are generally defined as sweetened drinks with electrolytes; enhanced waters have vitamins instead. The change is significant because teenagers are rejecting soda in droves in favor of a huge new variety of “mid-calorie” beverages like sports drinks, enhanced waters, sparkling juice and sweetened teas. The market for such beverages in the United States is so bullish that Coke forked over a whopping $4 billion in June for Glacéau, which makes Vitaminwater.

The beverage industry and its nonprofit partners describe the amendment as a minor tweak — so minor that they didn’t bother to tell the people who applauded them the previous year for striking such a bold deal.

Nutrition advocates accuse the beverage industry of gutting the agreement. “This is a huge loophole that will bring lots more sugar and calories into kids’ diets,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Ms. Wootan says enhanced waters are simply sugar water with vitamins tossed in, most of which children don’t need.

Dr. Carlos A. Camargo, associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School, says if people are concerned about teenagers consuming too many liquid calories, they should fix school drinking fountains. “It has zero calories, zero artificial sweeteners, zero stimulants and — if the schools made sure that their drinking fountains actually worked — it could be provided throughout the school day at NO COST to students,” Dr. Camargo wrote in an e-mail message.

Dr. Camargo was part of an Institute of Medicine panel that suggested last spring that schools should offer only water, low-fat milk or 100 percent fruit juices during the school day.

The beverage industry rightly points out that getting soda out of schools is a large improvement. “It’s much ado about nothing,” said Kevin Keane, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association. “All you’re doing is simplifying the language to base it around calories rather than products.”

He noted that some juices allowed in schools contain far more calories than enhanced waters and sports drinks do. Mr. Keane also said that the amendment didn’t change the calorie mix offered in schools: the deal continues to require that 50 percent of the beverage offerings in high school are water or contain 10 calories or less for eight ounces.

BUT the problem is, even if 50 percent of the vending machine offers Gatorade and vitamin water, and the rest is diet soda and water, which drinks do you think most teenagers will pick? My kids would pick vitamin water or Gatorade, and I suspect most others would too. Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, has tried repeatedly to pass legislation that would allow the Department of Agriculture to update its standards on what kinds of foods and beverages can be sold in school vending machines and school stores.

In the past, the beverage industry has been among his biggest foes. But this time around, the beverage industry isn’t opposing the bill — it is encouraging Senator Harkin to adopt its standards (with the amendment included, of course) on beverage sales in schools. “Voluntary nutrition standards were announced just over a year ago with great fanfare, but in a short time, there was quiet backsliding to sneak sugary beverages into our schools again,” said Kate Cyrul, a spokeswoman for the Senate agriculture committee, of which Senator Harkin is the chairman. “For the sake of our children’s health, Congress should pass science-based school nutrition standards that cannot be altered at the request of just a few parties and without public input.”

It’s not so surprising that soda makers would push for such a change given their struggle to keep pace with the changing tastes and demands of the public. Like most food and beverage companies, they are trying to figure out how to promote healthy lifestyles in ways that don’t discourage customers from buying their products.

But you would think that an organization called the Alliance for a Healthier Generation would be more concerned with kids’ health than corporate profits. The deal was already signed. Why give in to the beverage companies?

Robert S. Harrison, the alliance’s executive director, said the intent of the original agreement was to remove high-calorie drinks from schools and reduce portion sizes. Now, for instance, only 12-ounce sports drinks can be sold in high school rather than 20 ounces. “The amendment is a technical amendment that is completely consistent with the original agreement,” he said. “We are trying to move the needle to improve the offerings that are available to kids in schools.”

The alliance deserved credit for moving the needle. But it could have pushed it further. I guess that’s why it’s not called the Alliance for the Healthiest Generation.