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“Enhanced Water” in the Schoolhouse

Posted on | September 11, 2007 | No Comments

Who’s in Charge of the Vending Machines?

Not too long ago, I wrote two Health Politics programs, one on Americans love affair with bottled water (over 10 billion dollars in sales per year) and the second on the marketing and growing sales of “Energy Drinks” in the US.

If you look at where these beverages are purchased, fewer then one percent are bought by students in their public schools. But the beverage industry has been quick to engage on restrictions in vending machines in these locations for obvious reasons. Getting to youth early and often establishes purchase patterns that can last for years. Just ask the tobacco companies. In May, 2006, under a growing onslaught of public criticism, the American Beverage Association reached an agreement with the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation to “halt sales of full calorie sodas in schools and limit the container size and calories of other beverages they sell there.” Under the agreement, companies could sell milk and water, diet sodas, sports drinks, and unsweetened and low calorie juices in high schools. One year later the principles in the agreement have been quietly amended in what a spokesperson for the American Beverage Association called “a straightforward commonplace move, and a pragmatic move (to adjust an) overly Draconian Policy.”

The change? Bottlers may now include other mid-calorie range drinks including iced-teas and vitamin fortified waters with fewer than 100 calories per 12 ounces. Glaceau Vitamin Water by Coca-Cola and SoBeLife Water by PepsiCo have 75 calories per 12 ounces. “Enhanced water” sales in the US have multiplied 44 times in the past year, with sales growing from 20 million to 885 million nationwide. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa doesn’t like the idea and has introduced a bill to manage quantity and quality of food and beverages in the nation’s public schools. Obviously a case could be made on either side for corporate/foundation self-regulation or government regulation. What is less open to debate is the product evolution of the beverage industry as they rush to avoid being labeled pro-obesity/pro-poor health. What’s amazing to me is that the escape route is water (translation: tap water with labeling) and now “ordinary water with extra stuff” of marginal (if any) value.

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