As I’ve been thinking about healthy lunches and what’s for lunch at schools recently, I keep coming back to the problem of soda and children. Specifically, I wonder what is the state of soda in schools. To answer my question, I’ve set out on an investigation. The situation is actually better than I expected, but better isn’t good enough. Soft drinks are still a problem with children, and spreading awareness of the issues can only help.
The problem that astonishes me the most—and slaps me in the face through experience— is what happens to a child’s attention when they drink liquid candy. I can see that a child jacked-up on sugar will not be able to pay as much attention to their learning. For some children—for my children— sugar and the other ingredients in soda send them into a temporary state of buzzing from thing to thing, distracted and unable to retain information let alone engage a subject and their own natural curiosity. That’s just the surface. There is a lot more going on when children drink soda.
Among the issues that come up in arguments against children’s excessive consumption of soft drinks are:
- intake high calorie, calories empty of nutrition
- replace nutritious calories, including, according to AAP. the calcium that comes from milk consumption (though there are many other sources of calcium in a well-balanced diet than cow’s milk)
- not replacing but just adding on calories, which has made soda consumption a major risk factor in obesity
- intake of refined sugar and other processed food-like substances
- intake of substances not naturally occurring in the foods that your body has evolved to process
- overload the body with too much to process, which for some can mean Type-2 (formerly called adult-onset) diabetes
- intake of caffeine with jitteriness and increased heart rate similar to that adults experience
- the diuretic effect of caffeine, which can lead to dehydration
- risk of heart disease
- development of dental caries and enamel erosion (AAP)
- intake of high-fructose corn syrup
- intake of artificial sweeteners
The American Beverage Association counters each of these points (and why wouldn’t they) with a series of eye-rollingly unlikely scenarios that would actually build a child’s health through the consumption of soft drinks. Rather than accepting and accommodating excuses, why not just start over with the nutritious foods and drinks we know our children need?
The Problems with Soda in School
Among the problems with soda in schools are the nutrition issues (taking in the bad and replacing the good), the attention issues (setting up a physiological reality that does not prepare children to learn), and the commercialization and brand experimentation issues (that gives over their consumption habits and brand loyalty for life). These are not small or simple issues, and those fighting to keep soda in schools work hard through lobbying and public relations to convince us that everything is just fine.
The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement on “Soft Drinks in Schools” in which they specifically addressed vending contracts and nutrition policies. Not surprisingly, national soft drink associations have disputed the policy from pediatricians in the past five and a half years since the statement was released. AAP reaffirmed this policy earlier this year, so the pediatricians have not backed down. See the full statement for details and recommendations.
Contracts with school districts for exclusive soft drink rights encourage consumption directly and indirectly. School officials and parents need to become well informed about the health implications of vended drinks in school before making a decision about student access to them. A clearly defined, district-wide policy that restricts the sale of soft drinks will safeguard against health problems as a result of overconsumption.
One of the most often used arguments against removing soda vending machines from schools is funding. How will schools survive without vending machine contracts, we’re asked. Soda is a cop out for school funding, a short-term gain that creates several short-term and long-term problems. Though removing the crutch of soda can create short-term funding issues, the long-term gains in putting funding back were it belongs are worth the change.
The problems and the solutions seem clear enough. The arguments in favor of leaving vending machines in schools fail to persuade most. Implementation of solutions, however, is slow.
Bans on Soda in Schools
Health effects of soda are similar for adults and children, but efforts to curb soda drinking have focused on children, specifically on children in schools since these somewhat closed environments have been the locations of the aggressive marketing campaigns to capture a brand-loyal (and substance addicted) audience while they are young and vulnerable.
Bans and limitations of soda in schools are well underway over the past decade. Policies have come about through industry initiatives, medical association pressure, legislative and regulatory moves at every level of government, school board or school district policy, and decisions made in individual schools.
Bipartisan efforts on the federal level in the U.S. to either ban junk food and soda (1999) or even just issue guidelines (2004) have met with bipartisan defeat. So, the regulation of junk foods and sweet drinks has gone more local as school-by-school and now state-by-state guidelines and laws are put in place to limit children’s consumption of these empty and even (destructive) food-like substances. In every case, those who support a ban are up against heavily funded lobbying by the manufacturers of those junk food-substitutes.
The two most influential actions in recent efforts to ban sodas in schools have been the AAP statement in 2004 and the compromises worked out by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation in 2006.
In Canada, the soft drink industry itself (Refreshments Canada) pulled out of schools in 2004 following the AAP statement. That is, they pulled out of some schools—elementary and junior high schools.
The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a partnership between the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, pinpointed soda in schools as a major risk factor for obesity, and they set out to make a change. The Alliance, major soft drink producers, and the American Beverage Association created “School Beverage Guidelines” and a program to educate school children about those guidelines. The Alliance and their co-leader California Gov Arnold Schwarzenegger have continued to push this agenda for the past three years. Though limitations on soda sales in schools were welcomed by children’s health activists, for many this compromise with the soda producers themselves didn’t go far enough in ensuring that children eat only nutritious foods in schools. Some have even claimed that there has been no change in soda consumption with removal of sodas from schools. The full results aren’t in yet, though. The experiment is complete and the reporting has begun. Results will be available in 2010.
How to Help Your Children Understand Soda
Some of the news coverage of regulations and limits of soda in schools claims that these efforts don’t or won’t result in lower soda intake by children. You can stock your shelves with all of the right foods and drinks, but the people who will ultimately control what your children eat and drink while they are away from you are your children themselves. I’m not sure just calling soda liquid candy will be deterrent enough—that might actually work against your healthy goals.
If you want your children to drink less soda, explain why. Condition your children to make nutritious choices. Better yet, especially with younger children who might not understand a big “why not drink soda” discussion with abstract rules or requests, show them why.
In my family, we don’t have a hard rule against simple sugars or refined sugars. I know my children will make their own decisions, so I help them understand my reasons for wanting them to limit their own intake. When my son has overloaded on sugar and ended up emotional and bouncing around from thing to thing, he recognizes how much he dislikes the situation. He doesn’t like the feeling, so he chooses water given a choice of drinks. Until he forgets again. I do remind him, but the self-regulatory impulse is much stronger that the outside regulation by parents or school or government, so I encourage its development.
To help my kids understand what they were drinking in sodas, we experimented. We use Lawrence Hall of Science GEMS (Great Explorations in Math and Science) books. The year we studied chemistry, we used Secret Formulas (grade level 1-3) to explore sweetness of drinks. Cola is one of the secret formulas kids investigate in this book. Through taste tests and experimentation we reached the shocking realization that there are 17 teaspoons of sugar in every 20-ounce serving of soda. By that point, my children were just grossed out by sodas.
What Should You Do to Ensure Healthy Foods at School?
Just because there are school lunch limitations in place in your schools does not mean that these limitations reach snack foods that compete with school lunch, called within the industry “competitive foods.” You still need to be part of the solution at home and in your child’s school. If you expect that your child will eat nutritious foods, you will have to be vigilant and active in making that happen.
- American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on School Health published a policy statement “Soft Drinks in Schools” on January 1, 2004. PEDIATRICS Vol. 113 No. 1 January 2004, pp. 152-154. They reaffirmed this policy May 5, 2009. PEDIATRICS Vol. 123 No. 5 May 2009, pp. 1421-1422.
- California Center for Public Health Advocacy, “Soda Fact Sheet,” September 2009. Clear, simple list of facts and numbers from medical journals.
- Michael F. Jacobsen, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Liquid Candy: How Soft Drinks are Harming Americans’ Health, June 2005.