The Semisweet Truth about School Soda

by Marian Burros
A joint venture has kicked some sugary kids' drinks out of schools, but are their replacements any better?

March 9, 2010

Glass dismissed? Sodas may be out of schools, but vending machines remain.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Considering that everyone is talking about the epidemic in childhood obesity—including the first lady, who is working to make the problem disappear in a generation—it may come as some surprise to learn that there has been an 88 percent reduction in calories from not-so-good-for-you beverages like sodas and sports drinks sold in schools across the country since 2004.

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But that’s just what former President Bill Clinton announced yesterday. His statement comes three years after the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a joint initiative of the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association, teamed with the three top soft drink companies to voluntarily remove sweetened soft drinks from schools across the country, in response to the growing threat of lawsuits and state legislation. Sodas have been replaced by “lower-calorie, nutritious beverage options in age-appropriate portions,” according to the American Beverage Association, the trade association for many beverage companies.

THE DETAILS: Shipments of full-calorie soft drinks to schools declined by 95 percent between the first semester of the 2004–2005 school year and the first semester of 2009–2010. Juice drink shipments decreased by 94 percent during that period. In fact, sales of all drinks sold to high schools, which have most of the school beverage vending machines, have dropped dramatically, about 72 percent, in the same period. That includes healthy drinks like water. While bottled water is now the most popular drink sold in schools, it still declined by about 15 percent.

President Clinton was thrilled with the outcome. “Even a person as optimistic as I am, I have to admit I am stunned by the results,” he said during a press event focusing on the change.

Health professionals, however, were a little less enthusiastic. While acknowledging that the beverage association had made “great progress,” Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said, “There is still work to be done.”

Read on for tips on choosing healthy beverages for your kids.

WHAT IT MEANS: Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, Paulette Goddard Professor in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, and author of What to Eat (North Point Press, 2006), admits that she finds the news “totally amazing,” expressing surprise at the phenomenon of the beverage industry trumpeting a drop in the sales of their products. “The beverage people are spinning loss of sales in every category, even water, as an improvement? That’s what I’d call it, but I’m not in the soda business," she says. But, like Wootan, she's also concerned that partial success is being taken as total victory. "If nobody is buying this stuff, let’s get the vending machines out of schools altogether," Nestle says. "And bring back water fountains. What a concept.”

But the beverage industry, says Nestle, is reluctant to give up its foothold in the nation's schools. “They know the next step is getting vending machines out of schools altogether, and are doing everything they can to keep those machines there—even to the point of reducing can sizes and using products with less sugar.” Among the drinks still permitted under the deal that was brokered are sports drinks, which Nestle describes as “marginally better than regular sodas,” and juice drinks, which often have very little fruit juice in them at all.

Snapple is a good example. The main ingredients of its juices it are water and concentrates of apple, grape, or pear. When New York City threw soft drinks out of their schools and replaced them with Snapple in 2003, CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson didn’t think much of the switch. “They are vitamin-fortified and they don’t have caffeine, but they are still pretty much the same as a 12-ounce Coke,” he said then.

It’s hard to sort out all these choices in the juice aisle, but Nestle offers a little guidance:

• Don’t keep soft drinks in the house. If you want to give your kids a soft drink as a treat, go out and buy it. “That changes things from ‘It's normal to drink this all the time’ to 'This is something special.'”

• Look for 100, avoid concentrates. For parents looking to clear the thicket of 100 percent juice versus juice drinks, there are a couple of guideposts. It’s simple enough to look for labels that say “100 percent juice.” But if there is a long list of ingredients on the label, it’s likely that there is some form of added sugar. It may be masquerading under the name of some kind of fruit juice concentrate—apple, grape, or pear concentrate may sound healthy, but they're heavily processed, and generally stripped of everything but their sweetness. They are much sweeter than simple juice squeezed from an apple or a pear.

• Limit it to a glass a day. In any case, nutritionists say children should not drink more than four to 12 ounces of juice daily, depending on age. Even 100 percent juices contain a lot of sugar and calories, without the fiber found in whole fruit (orange and grapefruit juice may be an exception, if they include pulp), and not much else. Keeping overall juice intake low means you spend less time deciphering labels. Give the kids a piece of real fruit instead!