Will an Electrolyte Drink Ban Save Kids?

AUGUST 5, 2010


Gatorade, Powerade and other sports drinks could soon be the latest food items prohibited for sale in California public middle and high schools if a bill promoted by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is approved this summer.

SB 1255, introduced by Senator Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, would add “electrolyte replacement” beverages with less than 42 grams of sugar per 20 ounces to the list of banned beverages. SB 965, a controversial bill enacted in 2005, controls the nutritional standards of food and drink choices in public schools.

The 2005 bill made an exception for drinks like Gatorade on the grounds that electrolyte consumption was valuable to active students. Currently, these sports drinks may be sold during the school day at middle and high schools, but the new bill would limit sales to one half hour before school starts or a half hour after school starts.

SB 965 took effect in 2007, causing students’ drink preferences to shift overwhelmingly to sports drinks, which make up eight of the top 10 bestselling beverages at middle and high schools. “According to the California Department of Public Health, electrolyte replacement beverages are overwhelmingly replacing sodas as the beverage of choice for school-age children,” Padilla noted in a June 16 press release. “Instead of replacing soda with water and other healthier beverages, students are buying sugar sweetened electrolyte replacement beverages.”

Former proponents of SB 965 now believe that bill did not reach far enough, and they see students’ shifting preferences to sports drinks as evidence that they were not thorough enough when defining the ban. Already 16 million Californians are obese or overweight, and proponents — like Schwarzenegger — think that manipulating childhood eating habits will help to remedy what they consider to be “obesity epidemic.” Interest groups behind the bill include the California School Nurses Association, the California Teachers Association and the Department of Public Health. In opposition are the California Chamber of Commerce and the California-Nevada Soft Drink Association.

While no one can doubt the connection between sugar and obesity-related health problems, opponents contend the bill is misguided and does not guarantee the outcome it claims it will have, at great cost to school revenues and businesses.

“SB 1255 does not address the real causes of obesity, which include a number of complex factors from nutrition to physical activity,” said the California Chamber of Commerce in their official statement on the bill. “Further restriction would achieve little while costing much to both the local school systems and the state.”

Of course, there’s also no guarantee that students will stop eating junk food simply because it’s not sold at school. A survey conducted in 2003 found that 46 percent California public high schools have open campus lunch policies that allow students to drive or walk off school premises during the lunch hour. In the wake of the Governor’s 2005 reforms, administrators noticed students going off campus where food choices met their tastes.

What’s more, about half of school officials on open campuses do not feel their school food service could handle providing lunch to all their students if the campus closed at lunch. Students can also bring junk food from home, or sell food to other students, satisfying a demand that once brought extra revenue to budget-impacted schools.

With Gatorade eliminated from the choices, the next big drink fad is unknown. Judith Stern, a nutrition scientist and professor at UC Davis, found that even pure fruit juices can have as much sugar as soda while providing no extra vitamins. “Twelve ounces of apple juice contains nearly 160 calories (more than a regular 12-ounce Coke or Pepsi) and most of those calories are in the form of sugars. Apple juice contains minimal amounts of any vitamins or minerals, unless they are added by the producer,” she wrote in a Sacramento Bee editorial at the time of the debate over SB 965.

The new bill has already moved through Senate committees and passed the Senate floor. It will next be heard in the Assembly Health Committee. Observers note that it’s a near certainty that it will pass the Assembly without trouble get signed into law. Whether it will help with America’s obesity epidemic, however, is far less certain.

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