MONDAY, Nov. 1, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Despite the setting of national guidelines that discourage the sale of high-calorie, sugary beverages to kids in elementary schools, a new U.S. study finds that many young children are still able to get those types of drinks while at school.
Under the voluntary recommendations, drawn up in 2007 by the U.S. Institute of Medicine, it is recommended that grade schoolers only have access to water, 100 percent juice and nonfat or 1 percent flavored or unflavored milk outside the actual lunch program, said Dr. Lindsey Turner, a clinical assistant professor of nutrition and kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Her findings on how well schools -- public and private -- are limiting student access to high-calorie, high-sugar beverages is published online Nov. 1 in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
Sugar-sweetened beverages in particular have been linked to the growing obesity epidemic among youth, and have been linked with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and other health problems.
Turner conducted a nationally representative survey to find out exactly what beverages are available in elementary schools. For the year 2008-2009, Turner said, "45 percent of public school [elementary] students could buy unhealthy beverages at school." In 2006-2007, 39 percent, could do so, she said, adding that, "ideally, that number should be zero."
For the study, Turner surveyed about 500 public and almost 300 private schools each year. "We looked at this for three consecutive years," she said.
"At private schools, the picture is considerably worse," she said. In 2006-2007, 57 percent of elementary school children had access to high-calorie beverages outside the lunch program, and in 2008-2009, 58 percent did.
"Progress is being made, but not enough," Turner said.
The findings seem to contradict a report released in March by the American Beverage Association (ABA), a trade group, reporting that 99 percent of school districts with beverage distribution contracts were in compliance with the voluntary guidelines.
The progress being made in reducing unhealthy beverages is actually greater than Turner's study might suggest, said Robert Wescott, an independent economist in Washington, D.C., who worked on the ABA report. The 99 percent figure, he said, came from companies stocking the vending machines.
"The beverage companies don't report milk," he explained, and higher-fat milks account for many of the "unhealthy" beverages found in Turner's report.
In response to the study, the ABA released a statement, pointing out that the new report does not include data from the 2009-2010 school year. "In fact," the statement reads, "the greatest strides in achieving compliance were made during the summer of 2009."
It confirms that the March 2010 ABA report only measures bottle shipments to schools, not beverage purchases by schools from other sources such as box stores. The ABA member companies aren't major providers of milk, according to the statement.
The school beverage "landscape" is indeed changing, according to the ABA statement.
In its March report, the ABA found that "the average elementary school student is purchasing less than 1.0 ounces per student per year of full-calorie soda."
As for the discrepancy between the two findings, Turner said the key may be the phrase "with a beverage distribution contract," as some schools may obtain beverages under other terms and conditions.
For private schools in particular, she said, beverage sales outside school hours can make money for the school.
The findings show that there's an opportunity to do more, said Amy Jamieson-Petonic, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
"I would suggest that parents play an active role in substituting healthy beverages for soda," she said. "Soda is high in calories and simple sugars, and very low with regard to nutrient density. Parents need to be good role models for their kids to help make choosing healthy foods and beverages a priority."
Parents can make a difference, Turner agreed. She suggests parents visit the school and assess the vending machine situation, pushing for changes if needed.
For more on suggested school nutrition standards, visit the U.S. Institute of Medicine.