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While many US restaurants removed sugary drink options from kid’s menus in recent years, 44% of the top 200 chains still offered soda or other sugary drinks, according to a recent study from the Center For Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
Sugary drinks contribute added sugars in a child’s diet, which can then contribute to obesity.
Yet sugary drinks were the most common children’s beverages offered at the top 200 restaurant chains in 2019 and 2021, the report found.
“It’s time for all restaurants to drop children’s sugary drinks. To complement industry efforts, states and localities should pass legislation that requires restaurants to make healthier beverages the default kids’ drink offering,” according to CSPI. “Healthier children’s meals, served with beverages such as low-fat milk, 100% juice, and water, can support families’ efforts to feed their children well and help them develop healthier eating habits.”
Let’s further examine what children drink at restaurants and how it impacts their health.
Sugary Drink Numbers by the Sip
The CSPI’s “Sweet Drinks, Sour Consequences” report analyzed the top 200 restaurants from September 2021 to April 2022 as ranked by revenue and how children’s beverage offerings at top restaurants have changed over the past 14 years.
On one hand, many menus are getting better.
The number of chains ranked in the top 200 not offering sugary drinks to kids increased from 12% in 2019 to 16% in 2021.
On the other hand, while fewer chains offered sugary drinks in 2021 (44%) compared to 2019 (56%), sugary drinks remained the most common children’s beverage offering among the top 200 chains in 2021. About 30% of all restaurants offered sugary drinks to kids in 2021 compared to 28% in 2019.
Data suggest that the largest chains may have driven progress on kids’ beverages in the past, and that progress may be slowing down, according to the CSPI study.
“Since we first started examining beverage offerings at restaurants in 2008, the number of top 50 chains offering sugary drinks to children has decreased from an all-time high of 31 chains (62 percent) in 2012 to 21 chains (42 percent) in 2021,” according to the study. “However, progress among the top 50 has been minimal since 2019, when 23 top 50 chains offered sugary drinks to kids.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic caused many food businesses and restaurants to close or temporarily shut down, many offered online ordering and thus food delivery apps began to rise in popularity, giving families the option to order out without leaving home.
Despite many chains not offering sugary drinks to children in-store, many still made sugary drinks available when ordering online.
“We found that half of the chains that offered online ordering on their website and did not offer sugary drinks to kids through our non-online ordering data collection did offer sugary drinks for kids through online ordering,” according to the CSPI. “Restaurants should ensure that the removal of kids’ size sugary drink offerings is reflected in all ordering environments in-person and online.”
Examining the ‘Sour Consequences’ of Sugary Drinks
The consumption of sugary drinks could have a large impact on children’s health.
For Latinos, the risk of diabetes is higher than white people, with Latinos adults overall having a 40% chance of developing type 2 diabetes.
Obesity can also stem, at least in part, from the overconsumption of sugary drinks.
“Latino kids who consumed sugary drinks had 2.3x the odds of severe obesity. Latino toddlers ages 2-4 who didn’t consume sugary drinks had 31% lower odds of obesity than those with a high intake,” according to a Salud America! resource.
Large consumption of sugary drinks has also been linked to higher risk of cancer.
With Latinos also facing disproportional risk for certain cancers, cutting out sugary drinks could be quite beneficial.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that policies that make healthy beverages the default children’s option should be widely adopted and followed in order to reduce children’s sugary drink intake,” according to the CSPI study.
Healthier alternatives for children include low-fat milk and water rather than sugary drinks like soda, lemonade, sports drinks, and fruit-flavored drinks.
Recommendations to Reduce Sugary Drink Consumption
CSPI lists several recommendations to reducing sugary drink choices for children, including making healthy beverages the default choice on kid’s menus.
“Restaurants should commit to removing sugary drinks from their children’s offerings on all platforms, including third-party apps,” according to the CSPI study.
Pediatricians suggest a few more policy changes, including sugary drink taxes.
A sugary drink tax aims to reduce the consumption of sodas, juices, and other high-sugar beverages by raising their price through taxes. Studies have shown that these taxes – in places like Berkeley, Calif., Seattle, and Philadelphia – can reduce purchases of sugary drinks.
How can you further promote health drink options in your community?
Advocate and learn how you can get water bottle fountains at your school with the Salud America! Action Pack!
Help school leaders push for Water Bottle Fountains in schools to boost access to water for Latino and all kids.