A study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine shows that in comparison to 4 years ago, 50% less students, or 1 in 4 U.S. public high school students could buy regular soda in school, during the 2010-11 school year. The researchers decided to examine the availability of competitive beverages, such as drinks sold by schools outside of meal programs, in school stores and snack bars, as well as vending machines and a la carte lines in the cafeteria in U.S. middle and high schools for four academic years, from 2006-07 to 2010-11.

The study used nationally representative data from U.S. public schools with 8th, 10th or 12th grades, involving over 1,400 middle schools and over 1,500 high schools and found that in the 2006-2007 school year, 27% of middle school students could buy soda, but by 2010-11 this figure dropped to 13%. In the 2010-11 school year, 63% of middle school students and 88% of high school students still had wide access to sugary drinks like sports and fruit drinks – despite the schools’ progress in removing sodas.

Leading author of the study, Yvonne Terry-McElrath, MSA, a researcher from Michigan University said: “Our study shows that, although schools are making progress, far too many students still are surrounded by a variety of unhealthy beverages at school. We also know that the problem gets worse as students get older.”

Terry-McElrath continues saying that the high availability of sugar-sweetened beverages in schools was largely due to the sale of sports drinks that 55% of middle and 83% of high schools sold in 2010-11. Sports drinks contain unhealthy amounts of added sugar and salt and according to leading health authorities, these drinks are only designed for serious athletes that train exceptionally hard, but they are not recommended for sale in schools.

The study also showed that even though the number of middle students with access to sports drinks dropped considerably from 72 to 44%, this did not apply to high school students. Whilst in 2006-07, 90% of high school students had access to sports drinks by 2010-11 83% of these students still had access to these drinks. Access to higher-fat milks (including 2% milk) dropped in both middle and high school students. However, over a third (36%) of middle school students and almost half (48%) of high high school students still had access to higher-fat milk. Although for high school students the availability of healthier drink alternatives remained fairly stable, for middle school students the report noted a statistically important drop from 96 to 89%.

Middle and high school availability for lower-fat milk was similar for both student groups, whilst access to bottled water remained about the same for high-school students, even though those in middle school had a slight decline in accessing bottled water, which may be due to some schools removing their vending machines.

The team also refers to other studies that indicate that for children, sweetened beverages are the main source of dietary sugar, and that selling these drinks at school considerably contributes to the students’ daily calorie intake. Their study, together with a similar recent study by Bridging the Gap on elementary schools, was conducted in view of preparations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to update national standards for competitive foods and beverages in schools, as these were last updated more than 3 decades ago. The USDA has been authorized by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to update the national standards, although a new proposal has yet to be put forward.

C. Tracy Orleans, PhD, senior scientist at RWJF concludes:

“The progress being made to remove sugary sodas from our nation’s middle and high schools is encouraging. But while this study does have good news, it also shows that we’re not yet where we want to be. It’s critically important for the USDA to set strong standards for competitive foods and beverages to help ensure that all students across all grades have healthy choices at school.”

Written by Petra Rattue