Fewer middle and high school students can buy sugar-sweetened sodas in school, but a majority of students still have widespread access to other sugary beverages, according to a study published Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
Conducted by our friends at Bridging the Gap, the study found that one in four high school students could buy regular soda during the 2010-11 school year, down from more than half who could buy soda at school four years earlier.
Middle school students also have less access to soda, down to 13 percent from 27 percent in 2006-07. But students continue to have access to sugary beverages such as sports drinks and fruit drinks. For example, 83 percent of high school students and 55 percent of middle schoolers had access to sports drinks during the 2010-11 school year.
Researchers studied data specifically and didn’t have the opportunity to gather feedback directly from school officials about the drinks they choose to offer students. But lead researcher Yvonne Terry-McElrath suspects that many schools are providing beverages such as sports drinks as a kind of compromise.
“There’s certainly a strong demand for them, they’re very popular. A lot of times when people consider what options that they are going to provide for students, they say, ‘O.K., this is a better option than soda,’” Terry-McElrath tells the Inside Track. “But it’s certainly the case that [sports drinks] are not without extra calories and extra sodium, and it’s not as healthy as other options.”
The study has received significant media attention since its release. Terry-McElrath says she’s pleased with the coverage, noting that despite efforts to reduce soda availability in schools, work remains. “We aren’t done yet. We could do more,” she says.
Help could soon come from the federal government. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is expected by the end of the year to release nutritional standards for foods and beverages sold outside of school meals, known as competitive foods. Those guidelines could direct schools to reduce availability of sugary drinks and instead offer only healthier options.
“It will have a really good strong effect, because for the first time there will be USDA standards,” Terry-McElrath says. “I think we’ve been able to make improvements to school meal programs, breakfast and lunch, because there are standards for those… hopefully [competitive foods] standards will be really solid and based on good science.”
To conduct the study, researchers studied the availability of competitive beverages in more than 1,400 middle and high schools for five years, from 2006-07 to 2010-11.
Reducing the availability of sugary drinks in schools is considered a key part of the effort to reduce childhood obesity, as sweetened drinks are the main source of dietary sugar among children. Research has shown that having such drinks in school can significantly contribute to students’ daily calorie intake.
Terry-McElrath says she was surprised that so many schools offered sports drinks, as well as other unhealthy beverages. For example, many middle schools made diet soft drinks available, which don’t contain sugar but do have caffeine, which isn’t healthy for children.
Some schools that do not offer sugary sodas to students don’t offer other competitive beverages either, evenin vending machines, Terry-McElrath says. “More and more, they’re just not putting beverages in there for students to access,” she says.
Overall, Terry-McElrath is pleased with the findings of the study, she adds.
“I was very encouraged to see the really strong drop in regular soft drinks,” she says. “I think there is good movement in our school systems toward offering kids better options.”
Editor’s Note: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) funded the study. PreventObesity.net is a RWJF project.