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Kids Drink Just as Much Soda when Sugar-Sweetened Drinks are Banned in Schools

Renee Despres
Friday, June 15, 2012 - 20:45

Kids drink as many or more sugary drinks when schools ban only soda – and not other sugar-sweetened beverages – as in schools that do nothing to decrease children’s access to high-calorie beverages. Even more discouraging, comprehensive policies banning sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda in school are only slightly more effective. Schools that ban all beverages with caloric sweeteners – including soda (sometimes referred to as soft drinks or pop), sweetened tea, sport drinks, energy drinks, juice and juice beverages, and others – reduce kids’ access to the drinks during school hours. But kids still drink just as many sugary drinks overall.

Researchers from the University of Illinois reported these discouraging results online November 7 in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. The research team was led by Daniel R Taber of the Health Policy Center, Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois.

Taber’s team asked 6,900 middle school students about their beverage drinking habits. All of the students attended public schools, and they came from 40 different states. Students were surveyed in 2004, when they were in fifth grade, and again in 2007, when they were in eighth grade. Then then tabulated the date based on state and school district policies. Some schools banned all sugar sweetened beverages; others banned only sodas or soft drinks, and others had no policies.

Despite bans on sodas, 85 percent of students reported consuming at least one soda per day. Although students were less likely to purchase  sodas during school hours, they still drank as much overall. Notably, when schools banned soda but allowed other sugar-sweetened beverages to be sold, kids drank as many sugar-sweetened drinks as in schools that did nothing at all. Some drank more sugary drinks overall, often purchasing large fountain drinks at nearby convenience stores or drinking more of the other high calorie drinks that were available.

Obesity and Sugar Sweetened Beverages

Since 1980, obesity prevalence among children and teens has more than tripled. As obesity rates soar in the United States and worldwide, public health professionals are scrambling to find effective interventions to prevent overweight and obesity, especially in children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 17 percent (12.5 million) children ages 2 to 19 are obese.

Previous studies have strongly linked consumption of beverages sweetened with sugar and other caloric sweeteners (most commonly high-fructose corn syrup) with obesity and weight gain. Commonly referred to as “sugar-sweetened beverages” or “SSBs,” these beverages include regular carbonated soft drinks,  sport drinks, energy drinks, juices, sweet tea, and others. During 2005-2006, kids and teens consumed more calories from sodas than from any other type of food or beverage.

One reason kids (and adults) consume so many sugary drinks: The drinks do not make them feel full. So kids do not cut down on other sources of calories when they consume sugary drinks. In addition, many SSBs are marketed as healthy alternatives to soda, despite their high caloric content and limited nutritional value.

The Need for More Comprehensive Policies

Because children spend large amounts of time at schools, public health professionals have recommended several policy-level interventions that target nutritional programs in schools. For instance, the Institute of Medicine, the nation’s leading public health think tank, recommends that all sugar-sweetened beverages be banned in schools. However, many states only implement this recommendation partially, for instance, banning sodas or soft drinks but allowing other high-calorie beverages to be sold. This study suggests that partial policies are at best ineffective and might even make the situation worse.

 “Our study adds to a growing body of literature that suggests that to be effective, school-based policy interventions must be comprehensive,” Taber’s team wrote.

These finding do not mean that schools should throw out bans on sugar-sweetened beverages, Taber’s team noted, but that school-based policies will only have modest effects if similar changes are not implemented in the community and at home. “Our results,” wrote Taber’s team, “…indicate that state policies produce positive changes in  school food environments, but any effect on student dietary consumption may be modest without complementary changes in other sectors, including the food environment in the community, as well as at-home consumption.”

Broader policies such as taxes on sugar sweetened beverages or stricter regulations on marketing the drinks to children, might help to increase school-based policies, the researchers wrote. However, further research is needed to explore those effects.

How Parents Can Help Limit Kids’ Sugar Consumption

While school and community level policies may take months or years to implement, parents can change policies in their own homes without a legislative fight. The following strategies can help limit your kids’ consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. As an added benefit, they’ll help you keep  those excess pounds off your waistline, as well!  

  • Remember: Monkey see, Monkey Do. Do you regularly down 46-ounce fountain Cokes? Do you drink sweetened iced tea by the gallon? If you can quit your habit, your kids are more likely to quite theirs.
    • Craft a challenge. How many days can you go without a soda or sugar sweetened drink?
    • Give your kids (and yourself) some non-caloric rewards for quitting. Stickers, pencils, or coloring books are great markers for small steps; big achievements can be rewarded by bigger rewards, like a trip to the zoo or new bike.
  • Play hard to get. Don’t keep sodas or other sugar-sweetened beverages in the house.
  • Serve drinks packed with nutrition – not calories. Serve water and low-fat milk and limit the amount of juice your kids drink each day.
  • Purchase a fancy, BPA-free water bottle and label it with your child’s name. Send it to school instead of a juice box.
  • Follow these guidelines when serving juice:
    • Give your child only 100% fruit juice. If it says “fruit drink,” put it back on the shelf.
    • Water down fruit juices. Mix 100 percent juice with sparkling water, and voila! you’ve got “special soda.”
    • Whenever possible, encourage your child to eat a whole fruit instead of juice.
    • Do not give juice to infants younger than 6 months of age unless your pediatrician recommends it.
    • Older infants (between 6 and 12 months) can drink up to 4 to  ounces of juice daily. Never put juice in a bottle or sippy cup. The sugar can collect on front teeth and lead to tooth decay.
    • Children ages 1 to 6 years should have no more than 4 to 6 ounces of juice a day.
    • Older children (6 years and above) should have no more than 8 to 12 ounces  
  • Teach your kids about calories and nutrition. Help them estimate how many calories they need to consume and plan a healthful menu around it.
  • If you must serve soda or soft drinks, make the drinks a special treat. If you’re at a restaurant, allow kids to choose between a soda and dessert. Or limit intake to no more than 4 ounces once a week or every two weeks.



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). Obesity rates among all children in the United States. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/childhood/data.html

Taber, D.R., Chriqui, J.F., Powell, L.M.,  & Chaloupka, F.J. (2011). Banning All Sugar-Sweetened Beverages in Middle Schools: Reduction of In-School Access and Purchasing but Not Overall Consumption. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.  doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2011.200