Do Schools Really Need Sugary Sports Drinks to Keep the Lights On?

School nutrition experts say kids don't need sugary sports drinks.

mid-cal beverages

Do students need this to get through the day? (Photo: benwatts/Getty Images)

Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

No doubt suffering through fifth-hour pre-calc is an exercise in endurance—but does it really require Gatorade?

Definitely not, say public health advocates, who are pushing for stricter regulations on so-called “mid-calorie” drinks sold in the nation’s schools.

Indeed, there’s been a radical transformation of the average hallway vending machine in recent years at American schools, even before the U.S. Department of Agriculture began weighing new rules intended to amp up the nutritional content and nix the empty calories of the food and beverages consumed by some 53 million school kids every day.

Pretty much gone are all your full-calorie sodas. Voluntary standards adopted by the beverage industry in 2006 have led to a whopping 90 percent reduction in the total amount of beverage calories shipped to schools between 2004 and 2010, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Elementary and middle schoolers are now limited to water, low-fat milk and 100-percent juice, while high schoolers also have access to drinks that fall in the middle: 66 calories per 8-ounce serving or 100 calories for 12 ounces.

It appears as if the new USDA standards for school vending machines and a la carte cafeteria menus will likely follow what the beverage industry has already been doing. But groups like CSPI, while commending the progress that’s been made, say the calorie count for mid-cal drinks should be reduced even further, to no more than 40 calories per container. That would eliminate full-calorie sports drinks.

“In 2004, 77% of the beverages in high schools were unhealthy, compared to 35% in 2009,” says a recent report from CSPI. “This is good progress, but there is still work to be done. According to one national study, 88% of high school students and 63% of middle school students still have access to sugary drinks in school. In addition, sports drinks were the most common sugar-sweetened beverages available; 80% of high school students and 50% of middle school students had access to sports drinks.”

And really, it’s hard to argue that even those kids who have PE—which, if memory serves, after dressing in and dressing out, may involve a scant half hour of anything resembling exercise—require the energy boost of drinks that “are recommended only to enhance the performance of individuals engaged in continuous, high-intensity workouts lasting more than 60 minutes,” notes CSPI.

(The same could be said for most of the wannabe gladiators among us in the adult population as well.)

Meanwhile, a 12-ounce sports drink has 21 grams of added sugar, which is more than the entire daily recommended amount for children and teenage girls, and two-thirds of the amount for teenage boys.

But as CSPI points out, revising the definition of mid-calorie drinks downward wouldn’t prohibit all sales of sports drinks. Drink makers could still hawk, say, Gatorade G2 Glacier Freeze or Propel Zero Kiwi Strawberry, which have less than 40 calories per container.

And isn’t that the point? If the bottle says “Gatorade,” then it’s pretty much a given that Mr. Varsity Soccer will think he’s drinking, well, Gatorade. Is he really going to notice (or care) that it’s a “lite” version?

What’s more, the beverage industry isn’t likely to see any impact from moving the definition of mid-calorie drinks down to 40 calories either. CSPI notes that a company like Coca-Cola already sells more than 800 no- or low-calorie drinks worldwide, so it’s not like there aren’t plenty of options to fill those vending machine slots. And even if all mid-calorie drinks suddenly disappeared from schools and kids opted to not buy anything else (extremely unlikely), the average school would lose the equivalent of pocket change in terms of revenue—about a dollar a day.

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