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No soda? No problem for sugar seekers

Since Robinson banned soda, kids load up on other sugary drinks.

Published April 29, 2007


TAMPA - This year, Robinson High banned sales of sodas, testing a new approach to fighting childhood obesity in Hillsborough schools.

The only problem: Booting the fizz didn't bring in nutritious replacements.

Sales figures show students still are chugging drinks laden with empty calories, like Gatorade and fruit-flavored Tropicana punches. Water - the unflavored variety, with no artificial sweeteners - amounted to barely 15 percent of sales in a recent survey.

For schools in Hillsborough, the nation's eighth-largest district, big bucks are at stake. The district has a 12-year, $50-million exclusive contract with Pepsi to sell sodas, water, sports drinks and other beverages. This summer, school officials hope to use sales figures from the Robinson experiment to renegotiate with Pepsi for healthier offerings.

So far, however, the project appears to have largely overlooked nutrition.

Consider one of Robinson's top sellers: Tropicana's Peach Papaya juice drink. A 20-ounce bottle packs 270 calories and 72 grams of sugar - roughly 18 teaspoons. Five percent is real fruit juice. Not available to students is the 20-ounce Pepsi, which features 250 calories and 70 grams of sugar.

Still, Robinson students purchased almost four times the amount of high-calorie fruit drinks like the Peach Papaya and sports drinks than bottled water.

A good first step

Nutrition experts agree the district would be wise to offer low-calorie drinks - or sell nothing but water, milk and smaller portions of 100 percent juices.

"If you take Sprite away from a kid and you still give him the exact same calories in Tropicana juice, it's not going to change his health outcome, " said Kristen Lewis, a dietitian at St. Joseph's Children's Hospital. "He's still going to be at risk for everything."

While concerned about the sugary drinks, school officials say the district took an important step with the experimental ban on carbonated drinks. The ban was recently expanded to Hillsborough High.

"We wanted to get the carbs out, " said Willie Campbell, who oversees purchases of goods and services for Hillsborough, including the Pepsi contract. "The sugar aspect is definitely part of what we are going to look at."

The district's general manger of student nutrition, Mary Kate Harrison, was not aware Robinson students mostly were loading up on sugary substitutes until she saw an analysis compiled by the St. Petersburg Times.

She says selling so-called fruit drinks with little nutritional value sends the wrong message.

"I think it's like telling kids instead of eating a whole apple, or a whole orange, let me give you these fruit gummy bears and they are fortified with Vitamin C and they will count for your fruit serving today, " Harrison said.

"Schools need to be the place where we are sending the right message all the time, " she added.

It's easier said than done. Hillsborough's experience shows the difficulty of curbing sales of junk food in schools, particularly in large districts.

The idea to ban soda sales from vending machines came last spring from a committee that studied ways to make schools healthier. But the School Board did not adopt detailed policies, only encouraged schools to promote health.

So principals still have a lot of say over what goes into vending machines. Schools receive a portion of the revenue, which can climb to $30, 000 to $35, 000 annually at a typical high school.

Robinson High senior Carl Davis, 18, figured he was doing something healthy when he stopped by a Gatorade vending machine in the hallway between classes.

"I want something sweet, because I'm going to run after school, " said the football player, twisting the cap off a Gatorade.

Sports drinks belong on the field, nutritional experts warn, noting that children rarely would need them for rehydration. Along with sugar, they feature high quantities of sodium.

Better drinks out there

National vendors like Pepsi pledged to do their part in the battle against childhood obesity by phasing in more nutritious options by the 2009-10 school year. Many drinks now sold as alternatives to sodas at Robinson and Hillsborough high schools aren't on the list of healthier products Pepsi has approved for high schools in the future.

Pepsi proposes to replace juices loaded with high-fructose corn syrup with diet teas and sugar-free Tropicana lemonades and fruit punches. The calorie count in Gatorade and other drinks would be limited to 66 calories per eight ounces.

Unlike Hillsborough, the major beverage companies don't see a problem if older students buy diet versions of carbonated drinks, although dentists say they still are bad for teeth.

"If you are trying to tackle childhood obesity, then it's really calories and nutrition that are important, " said Susan Neely, president and chief executive of the American Beverage Association. "I don't know that there's any concern about carbonation. That fact sometimes gets a little muddy in the public debate."

Likewise, it was sugar that concerned a national panel at the Institute of Medicine, which advises the federal government and this week released stringent guidelines for school food. For high schools, it allows for a variety of noncaffeinated drinks with less than five calories per serving, but to be available after school only.

"Making the move to take out some sodas but leaving in sport drinks and the juice drinks that are not 100 percent, that may have been an oversight because they provide very similar calories as sodas, " said Virginia Stallings, the committee chairwoman and director of the nutrition center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The best option: water, low-fat milk or small portions of 100 percent juices. "If you're going to have something that's not water, then make it count, " she said.

Letitia Stein can be reached at or 226-3400.

Fast Facts:


Healthy drinks

High school drinks, recommended by the Institute of Medicine:

- Plain water.

- Low-fat and nonfat milk

- 100 percent fruit juice in small portions.

After school only: noncaffeinated drinks with less than 5 calories per portion.

[Last modified April 29, 2007, 00:24:10]

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