Just banning soda from schools doesn't actually curb student consumption of sugary drinks, according to new research.
Access to and student purchasing of sugar-sweetened beverages in states that ban soda from schools and states that have no beverage policy is similar. In both soda-banning and no-policy states, nearly 67 percent of 8th graders said they have access to sugary beverages in school and almost 30 percent of those surveyed report purchasing sugary drinks. In states where soda is banned, schools and students simply replaced availability and consumption of sodas with other sugary drinks like sports and high-calorie fruit drinks.
The study, published in the November issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, surveyed 5th and 8th grade students in public schools across 40 states.
In states that banned all sugar-sweetened beverages, 15 percent fewer students reported having access to sugary drinks in school, and 7 percent fewer reported purchasing those drinks at school. Still, it didn't change the students' out-of-school access or purchasing of those beverages, nor did it change overall consumption: Across soda-banning, no-policy and all-sugary-drinks-banning states, about 85 percent of students reported consuming sugar-sweetened beverages at least once in the last week.
"I think definitely the biggest message is that laws need to be comprehensive to have any positive effect at all," Daniel Taber, an author of the study and postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told The New York Times. "The most unequivocal finding was that laws that focus on soda are just not getting it done. If you really want to create a healthier school environment, you need more comprehensive laws."
Over the last 25 years, American youth have consumed more sugar-sweetened beverages but haven't cut back on caloric intake from food. The phenomenon has been associated with youth obesity and weight gain, and more schools across the country are working to cut back on sugary drinks. The Institute of Medicine has recommended that all sugar-sweetened drinks be banned from schools, and schools from California to Massachusetts are considering banning, or have already banned, chocolate milk, citing its high sugar content.
"Our study adds to a growing body of literature that suggests that to be effective, school-based policy interventions need to be comprehensive," the study's authors write in their report. "States that only ban soda, while allowing other beverages with added caloric sweeteners, appear to be no more successful at reducing adolescents' sugar-sweetened beverage access and purchasing within school than states that take no action at all."
Also in an effort to comply with new school lunch guidelines required by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed in September to cut potatoes from school breakfasts and drastically reduce its availability in lunches. The Senate, however, voted last month to block the proposal to cut back on the starchy root vegetable.
While it's important to instill in students good nutritional habits while they're young, simply focusing on piecemeal policies in schools isn't going to be enough, Taber says.
"It suggests there have been positive changes to the school food environment overall, that schools are healthier," Taber told Reuters. "I wouldn't see this as a failure, it's just that that's not going to be enough. To reduce sweetened beverage consumption, and ultimately to reduce obesity, it's going to take more comprehensive policy initiatives."
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