This Sept. 26 Page One article about sales of junk food in schools should have made it clear, in describing a television ad for Gatorade A.M. as portraying "active suburban parents and kids," that there were no children in the scene. All the characters in the ad were played by adult sports stars.
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Should Drinks Like Gatorade Sport the 'Junk Food' Label?
"Most kids you see carrying around sports drinks are not athletes," said Mary Story, a professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health and one of the authors of the institute's report. "When you look at the ingredients, it's water, high-fructose corn syrup and salt. The question is, who is really benefiting? Is it the kids or the companies that make [the drinks]?"[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Sales in schools are rising. The beverage association reported that sports drinks increased their market share in schools from 14.6 percent in 2004 to 20 percent in the 2006-2007 school year. During the same period, full-calorie sodas' share dropped from 39.9 percent to 29.8 percent.
Sports drinks are particularly good for the bottom line. Pepsi-owned Gatorade, which has an 80.2 percent market share, contributed 15 percent of Pepsi's profit growth in the 2006 fiscal year, according to Robert Van Brugge, an industry analyst at Sanford Bernstein. Powerade isn't as significant a profit driver for Coca-Cola, but, Van Brugge notes, the company spent $4.1 billion in May to purchase VitaminWater parent Glaceau. "They have to make that investment work," he said.
Beverage companies have spent millions making sure that sports drinks are associated with health and athletics. According to Competitive Media Research, Pepsi spent $81 million promoting Gatorade for a three-month period that ended in May. Ending up on a list of school junk foods could undermine that healthful, sporty image.
"For years we've been programmed to believe that sports drinks are healthy and you need to replenish those electrolytes after you go out and walk the dog," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "They don't want any official sanctioning of the idea that sports drinks are associated with obesity."
A few school districts have already fought nutrition battles over sports drinks, and Connecticut last fall became the first, and so far only, state to have passed legislation barring sports drinks and enhanced waters in schools. Both Maryland and Virginia rules permit them, though Montgomery County has mandated that sports drinks be available only in the sports education areas. The District of Columbia's new wellness policy, which awaits final approval from Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, also rejects sports drinks.
The president of the Connecticut Senate, Donald Williams, said the beverage industry's high-pressure lobbying made his state's bill one of the most contentious in his 14 years in office. "People were throwing themselves in front of the bus on behalf of the soda companies," he said.
Kevin Keane, the beverage association's vice president for communications, said the attack on sports drinks is misguided. "These drinks are low in calories and the portion sizes are capped," he said. "They have benefits to the student. Where you have students competing in athletics throughout the day, it's an essential beverage to make available. These are very reasonable, common-sense things."
For Harkin, allowing sports drinks and enhanced waters to remain in schools could be a deal-breaker. "Our most recognized national health watchdog -- the Institute of Medicine -- said sports drinks are equivalent to flavored water, noting their high sugar content," he said. "If the beverage industry is serious about the health of our kids, as it repeatedly claims to be, science and sound health should be the guiding principle."