4 in 10 teens bypass sugar ban

A new study finds that 4 in 10 teens buy sugary drinks during at lunch, despite a ban inside school gates

New University of Hertfordshire research among over 500 teenagers aged 13-15 living in Scotland, has found that four in ten (41%) consume sugar-filled drinks – including regular fizzy drinks and energy drinks – during the school lunch break, despite these being banned within the school gates.

Teenagers who bought sugar-sweetened drinks from outside the school canteen were significantly more likely to eat foods high in fat, sugar and/or salt, such as chips and sweets at lunchtime, as well sausage rolls at mid-morning break, than those who did not consume sugary drinks (26.9% vs 12.6%). 

They also consumed four times more sugar at lunchtime than those who didn’t purchase a sugary drink (41g vs 10g).

Even those young people who did not purchase a sugary-sweetened drink at lunchtime still exceeded the WHO recommendations that sugar consumption be halved to no more than 5% of daily energy intake. This suggests considerable effort will be required to reduce young people’s sugar consumption, above the Government’s introduction of a sugary drinks tax.

Researchers Dr Laura Kate Hamilton and Professor Wendy Wills, from the Centre for Research in Primary and Community Care at the University of Hertfordshire, studied what 535 young people aged between 13-15 years, living in Scotland and studying at seven different schools, ate and drank during the school lunch break. This included a questionnaire, interviews, focus groups and observing young people inside and outside school.

Further results include:

  • 77% of young people reported purchasing food and drink outside of school at lunchtime at least twice a week, as opposed to the school canteen.
  • Significantly fewer young people who purchased lunch in the school canteen regularly consumed a sugary drink at lunchtime, compared with those who purchased lunch at school less often
  • A proportion of young people who drink sugary drinks reported eating no food at lunchtime at all
  • Of the young people who reported consuming sugary drinks at lunchtime, 73.7% reported that the drink they consumed was a regular soft drink, while 18.3% reported consuming an energy drink and 8% reported consuming both a soft drink and an energy drink.
  • Students who drank a sugary drink at lunchtime were significantly more likely to have consumed a soft drink or an energy drink at mid-morning breaks as well, when compared to those who did not (12.0% vs. 6.3% respectively). This means they were drinking sugar-filled drinks at both mid-morning break as well as during the lunch period.

At mid-morning break, plain water was significantly more likely to be consumed by those who did not consume a sugary drink at lunchtime

Professor Wendy Wills from the University of Hertfordshire, said: 

“These findings are of major concern, as research has not only found an association between regular sugar-filled drink consumption and weight gain, metabolic syndrome and obesity, but also an increased risk of type-2 diabetes. 

“Whilst we need a strategy to reduce the consumption of sugar-filled drinks by young people, simply removing access to soft drinks within schools is clearly not enough, as a number of the young people we studied were able to leave the school premises during their lunch period to visit nearby shops. This led to them purchasing sugary drinks on a regular basis, as well as less nutritious foods.

School meals may be more nutritious than food or drink available outside the school, but they are not always enticing or enjoyable – Professor Wendy Wills from the University of Hertfordshire

“It is imperative that schools provide healthier options alongside a more desirable social environment and that they include young people in these decisions. School meals may be more nutritious than food or drink available outside the school, but they are not always enticing or enjoyable. Providing students with a choice of affordable nutritious foods and a cafeteria that allows them to socialise with their friends in a less restrictive way may encourage young people to stay within the school premises.”

“In addition, policy measures need to be bold to tackle young people’s consumption of sugar, as sugar sweetened drinks offer zero nutrition. For young people who drink sugary drinks but eat no food at lunchtime, and possibly no food before school or at mid-morning break, which was the case for some teenagers in our study, tough measures are needed, to restrict the sale of energy drinks to under 16s.” 

Until now there has been little research regarding the sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption patterns of young people in the UK. Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) are defined by the British Medical Association (BMA) in their most recent report as “all non-alcoholic water based beverages with added sugar, including sugar-sweetened soft drinks, energy drinks, fruit drinks, sports drinks and fruit juice concentrates (BMA, 2015)”.

The government has recently announced that such a tax, or levy will come into effect in April 2018. It is expected that this will apply to drinks containing more than 5g of sugar per 100ml, with a higher rate of tax for drinks containing more than 8g of sugar per 100ml.