Congress Gets Involved in School Beverage Debate

By Christina A. Samuels — October 09, 2007 4 min read
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Both nutrition advocates and the soft-drink industry claimed victory last year when they announced a plan to stop selling full-calorie, sugary drinks in schools by 2009.

Nutrition groups said the agreement would strike a blow at childhood obesity and make schools models of good food habits for students. Beverage makers, meanwhile, had a chance to show their commitment to good citizenship and children’s health.

In fact, say industry representatives, the agreement has worked out so well that the voluntary guidelines should be written into a school nutrition bill pending in Congress, which would make them law.

But nutrition advocates say the voluntary policy, while a step in the right direction, still allows the wrong sorts of drinks to be sold to students.

Soda Substitute?

The school nutrition measure, sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is being considered as part of the much larger 2007 farm bill. The school provisions would call for the Department of Agriculture to update its decades-old standards on the nutritional quality of food and drinks sold outside of the cafeteria during the school day. Current federal law and regulations only address foods sold during school lunch periods. The rules don’t address beverage and other vending machines outside the cafeteria.

Drink Debate

Voluntary beverage-sales guidelines for high schools bar full-calorie sodas but allow sports drinks and so-called enhanced waters in addition to water, milk, fruit juice, and diet soda. The graphic shows nutrition information for comparable servings of certain drinks.

* Click image to enlarge.


Note: Some containers shown are larger than serving size.
SOURCE: Beverage makers

The voluntary guidelines supported by the beverage industry currently allow high schools to offer portion-controlled sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade, as well as a newer category of drinks known as “enhanced waters,” represented by products such as Vitaminwater, whose parent company was recently bought by the Coca-Cola Co. for $4 billion, and Propel Fitness Water, owned by PepsiCo Inc.

“We have opinion surveys that suggest that people support [enhanced waters and sports drinks] being offered, as long as they’re offered at an appropriate beverage size,” said Susan K. Neely, the president and chief executive officer of the American Beverage Association, a Washington-based trade group for the major beverage producers.

But health advocates say such beverages are thinly disguised sugar water. The vitamins in enhanced waters aren’t missing in most children’s diets, and the sodium included in sports drinks can be harmful, they say.

Enhanced waters and sports drinks are a “modest improvement over soda, but not exactly a healthy one,” said Margo G. Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a research and advocacy group in Washington.

In April, a panel of scientists, as part of a series of changes they would like to see in school food offerings, said sports drinks should be available only for high school students who are engaging in vigorous exercise for an hour or more. And enhanced waters don’t have a place in schools, said Dr. Virginia A. Stallings, who chaired the 15-person panel that issued the report for the federal Institute of Medicine.

“We want children to get the whole food,” said Dr. Stallings, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania. “We don’t want to take the vitamin C and the calcium and put it in a sparkling water.”

When the panel made its recommendations, Sen. Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, said they should be used to guide federal policy.

“The voluntary guidelines agreed to by the snack-food and beverage industries in the past year were a good first step. I applauded them, and believe that they were agreed to in good faith, but they are unenforceable,” he said in a statement earlier this year. “In addition, the [Institute of Medicine] recommendations are stronger than the negotiated guidelines to which the food industry agreed and grounded in science.”

The farm bill is currently under consideration in the Senate agriculture committee.

The debate over federal beverage guidelines is just the latest battle in efforts to address childhood obesity.

Meeting Goals

Though carbonated beverages are still the most popular drinks offered by the industry, the consumption of sports drinks and of fruit juices and juice drinks is growing, said John Sicher, the editor and publisher of the trade journal Beverage Digest.

These alternatives to carbonated drinks are also a growing part of the mix of beverages offered in schools. The voluntary policy brokered by beverage distributors and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation—a partnership between the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association—allow such drinks to be offered to high school students, along with water, diet soda, low-fat and nonfat milk, and 100 percent juice. Under the policy, middle schools and elementary schools may offer only water, milk, and 100 percent juice.

The American Beverage Association released a report last month showing that after the first year under the voluntary agreement, full-calorie sodas declined in share of the beverage mix sold at schools from 46.9 percent in 2004 to 32.1 percent this year. Water, including enhanced waters, increased in share from 11.5 percent to 21.5 percent in that period, while sports drinks increased from 12.8 percent to 18.7 percent of the mix.

“The whole policy is geared towards reducing the amount of calories in schools. The progress is going in the right direction,” said Ms. Neely of the beverage-industry group.

Ms. Wootan, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in some ways the debate over enhanced waters and sports drinks is a good one—“it shows a move away from sodas,” she said.

The center could support having the voluntary guidelines written into law, if more restrictions were placed on the availability of sports drinks and enhanced waters, Ms. Wootan said. It could also support leaving the restrictions ultimately up to the Agriculture Department.

“Which approach we use is largely up to the food and beverage industries,” Ms. Wootan said.


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