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Soda Access Drops in Middle, High Schools; Sports Drinks in Easy Reach

While sugary sodas are less accessible at American middle and high schools than they were four years ago, secondary school students still have easy access to other sweetened beverages, including sports and fruit drinks, a study published today in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine finds.

One in four public high school students could buy regular soda in school during the 2010-11 school year, which is a decrease from four years earlier when more than half of high school students could buy soda in school. In middle schools, 27 percent of students could buy regular pop on campus in the 2006-07 school year, compared with 13 percent four years later.

But outside the cafeteria, where the study concentrated, 63 percent of middle school and 88 percent of high school students could buy sugary drinks including sports and fruit drinks from vending machines, a la carte lines in the cafeteria, school stores, and snack bars, the study shows. Researchers used nationally representative data from public schools with 8th, 10th or 12th grades, analyzing responses from more than 1,400 middle schools and more than 1,500 high schools.

"Our study shows that although schools are making progress, far too many students still are surrounded by a variety of unhealthy beverages at school," said Yvonne Terry-McElrath, a researcher from the University of Michigan and the study's lead author. "We also know that the problem gets worse as students get older." She is a co-investigator with Bridging the Gap, a research program of the Princeton, N.J.,-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the study.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is authorized by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to regulate what is sold in school vending machines and other places in school outside the cafeteria. However, proposed regulations, expected to be out in the spring, have stalled. The longer it takes for the rules to be proposed, the longer it will take for them to be put into action.

Well and Good

Although the news about soda was welcome, researchers said concerns remain about the wide availability of sports drinks. The percentage of middle school students with access to sports drinks dropped from 72 percent to 55 percent over the four-year study period, but 83 percent of high school students still had access to sports drinks in 2010-11—only a small decrease from 90 percent in 2006-07.

"While this study does have good news, it also shows that we're not yet where we want to be," Terry-McElrath said. "It's critically important for the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] to set strong standards for competitive foods and beverages to help ensure that all students across all grades have healthy choices at school."

Research shows that sports drinks, which can contain large amounts of added sugar and salt, should only be consumed by serious athletes engaging in vigorous physical activity.

The study also found that although access to higher-fat milks, including 2 percent milk, declined in middle and high schools, these varieties were still available to more than a third of middle school students and close to half of high school students. However new USDA rules for school meals allow only 1 percent and fat-free milk to be sold in school lunches.

Terry-McElrath and her fellow researchers noted that sweetened beverages are the main source of dietary sugar for children and that having such drinks at school has been found to significantly contribute to students' daily calorie intake.

Similar findings about elementary school students' access to soda were published earlier this year in the Archives of Adolescent and Pediatric Medicine.

Soda sales nationwide have been declining, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently proposed a ban on sodas larger than 16 ounces. The New York City Council is slated to vote on the measure in September.

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