The truth about soft drinks

Wednesday 8th August 2007 12:45

In their rush to get only healthy drinks into schools, regulators have been ill-advised, say some drinks makers. Ian Boughton gets the sugar-free truth

Any school caterer serving to school-age teenagers will, from next month, have to follow new rules. There are new regulations concerning food and drink sold and served within schools, but it's reasonable to expect that "goodness" in children's drinks is a subject which will soon spread to other areas of out-of-home catering, even if only as a promotional angle.

There is a problem, however - the rules are still not clear, and some people say they are plain wrong.

The School Food Trust has laid down stringent rules for drinks sold in schools for consumption by pupils - apart from water, the only other drinks permitted in school will be milk, pure fruit juices, and yogurt and milk drinks. Drinks made from a combination of these will be allowed, together with low-calorie hot chocolate, tea and coffee. Fizzy and sugary drinks are out.

On the face of it, it's all well-meaning advice - but even Parliament has now questioned its accuracy. In June, Dr Ashok Kumar, MP for Middlesbrough and East Cleveland, told the House of Commons that, in their enthusiasm to do the right thing, the authorities had missed some aspects of general health.

Big issue

It has been shown that children's ability to do arithmetic is impaired even if they are only slightly dehydrated, he said - and as 40% of teenage schoolchildren don't drink the necessary 1.2 litres a day, hydration is a big issue in school. And yet, the School Food Trust guidelines have approved smoothies, because of their fruit content, although they are not good for hydration. On the other hand, low-calorie soft drinks, which can be helpful for hydration, are prohibited for being "fizzy".

"The ban should be based on the properties of the drinks," says Kumar. "Smoothies are reasonably calorific and expensive, and are not always a realistic option for hydration allowing low-calorie drinks alongside smoothies would be a better overall approach."

Several fruit juice companies have said that the MP has done well in illustrating that the rules are well-meaning but wrong. "We've followed this closely, and we agree with Dr Kumar," says Matt Crane, the 'pure hydration director' of Juice Doctor, the brand which claims to have invented the category of so-called functional hydration.

This is a concept part-founded by Olympic rowing champion Sir Steve Redgrave, and it holds that not just schoolchildren but three-quarters of the entire UK population are in a state of perpetual dehydration, which is the number-one cause of headaches and daytime fatigue.

As most people dislike drinking plain water, says Juice Doctor, the best remedy is a flavoured beverage which provides hydration, minerals and vitamins. Juice Doctor's "hydration fix" drinks are based on fruits such as blackcurrant, pomegranate and lemon, with minerals which encourage water to be held in the body for longer.

However, they fail the school guidelines on sugar. "In a very simplistic way, the trust has sought to say that kids should drink water or fruit or dairy," says Crane. "Smoothies are OK, although we now hear talk of certain smoothie drinks having the same amount of sugar as a Mars bar. By contrast, we're a juice which uses a very small amount of beet sugar, so we're ruled out."

Support for Juice Doctor's position comes from Frobishers, the fruit juice company which handles a vast amount of supermarket own-brand juicing. There is illogicality in the ruling, says commercial director Ray Tyrrell. "We see that some smoothies are now made from concentrated fruit juices packed with additives and e-numbers - so the rule cannot concentrate on the type of drink," he says. "It should concentrate on the properties of the drink."

Among the big names, Britvic has joined the hydration side of the argument with two product moves. One is the launch of The Really Wild Drinks Co, a range of six natural juice drinks available only through vending and over-the-counter sales in schools, and designed to offer more "street-cred" than plain water. "We invested to create an appealing product that secondary school students would want to drink," says Britvic sales director Andrew Richards. "Our research showed that teenagers thought Really Wild was cool."

Britvic has also redesigned its Drench bottled water on the same theme, claiming "a new marketing concept - mental hydration". The pack talks of staying "mentally and physically hydrated all day", and a future marketing line will be: "Your brain is 75% water - keep it topped up."

Variety of drinks

The British Soft Drinks Association has also spoken out on the same lines as Kumar. "We would like fluid intake targets to be included in the standards, as children risk the side effects of dehydration," said its response to the School Food Trust. "Providing children with a variety of drinks to choose from is important."

Variety is the point which really has been missed, says Richard Canterbury, managing director of Love Smoothies. "The majority of smoothies contain natural fructose, not artificial sweeteners, and give children vital nutrients and vitamins in an easy-to-drink format," he says. "One of Love Smoothies' beverages provides 2.5 of the five-a-day [fruit servings] that a child requires, which is something water and cheap carbonate drinks can't do. So smoothies should be consumed in addition to water, not instead of it, thus giving children both the nutrients and the hydration."

He adds: "Because smoothies are made from pure fruit, they're more expensive than we'd like them to be, but we are looking at ways to make them more affordable. And we continue to supply state schools."

The confusion over sugars and additives in children's drinks has been most robustly raised by the Big J, the first company to propose a legal definition of a smoothie.

"As there is no definition, cheap impostors have infiltrated the market, charged pure smoothie prices and confused the consumer," declares managing director Josephine Beach. "A smoothie should adopt the same guidelines as 100% 'pure' juice - anything that is added to dilute or artificially enhance is not pure, and should be labelled a 'smoothie drink'. Today's consumer knows the difference."

The Big J has said that it doesn't need to change any of its products in response to the School Food Trust guidelines, but has launched an aggressive campaign against additives, measuring the contents of several competitor juice drinks and rating them with a skull-and-crossbones mark.

Simplistic rulings are not enough, says the trade, and an example comes from Paul Bendit of Metro Drinks, whose Juice Patrol product has been approved by the Hyperactive Children's Support Group. Research has shown that 87% of children diagnosed as hyperactive had adverse reactions to artificial colourings, and 72% were sensitive to artificial preservatives. A psychiatrist reports having obtained consistently positive results in treating hyperactive children by removing artificial additives from their diet.

This, says the soft drinks trade, shows just how much there is to think about when laying down the rules.


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