Sophie Millar reports on current beverage intake trends in teenagers, and the differences in consumption between a disadvantaged school and a private, fee-paying school.

Sugar-sweetened beverages and ‘sugar tax’ proposals are the hot topic of the moment, but when was the last time actual intake in teenagers was assessed in Ireland? Try rolling your mind back to a time before the iPhone, before ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’, before Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or Buzzfeed, before One Direction and skinny jeans. The year? 2005, when ‘Batman Begins’ was released, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, and Pope John Paul II died. The 2005-2006 National Teens’ Food Survey was conducted by the Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance, but has not been re-conducted to date.

It can be safe to say that teenagers growing up in 2005 were experiencing a very different world to those in 2015. The social and cultural environment has seen a frenzied re-construction. Sugary drinks, by their nature, are not beneficial to health and contribute to tooth decay and possible weight gain through the provision of ‘liquid calories’, but are they being consumed to such an extent that a ‘sugar tax’ is merited?

A recent investigation in Dublin revealed some interesting insights. Results were optimistic overall, with a healthy beverage intake reported among adolescents, with water at the forefront and an apparent decrease in fizzy drinks. However, this encouraging trend was not observed among all in society.

“While students from the private school reported drinking only 1-3 fizzy drinks a month, DEIS school students reported drinking 2-4 per week”

Researchers from University College Dublin surveyed just under 450 students, aged 12-18 years, from two mixed-sex post-primary schools – one a private, fee-paying school and one a DEIS school (classified as disadvantaged by the Department of Education). On a whole, results were overwhelmingly positive, with water being reported as the most highly consumed beverage at almost 1.5 litres per day. In fact, the sales of bottled water have increased in Ireland by almost 50% since 2003. This corresponds with the exuberant health and fitness craze over the last number of years – the surge in blogs, vlogs, and #fitspo posts, pins and tweets – everyone setting off with their Ballygowan or Volvic, or the latest eco-friendly, reusable water bottle.

The survey also found tea and milk intake taking silver and bronze medals respectively, while fruit juice and fizzy drinks lagged behind in joint fourth place at just under 60 ml/day. This amount of a typical fizzy drink equates to about 25 kcal, or about 7 g of sugar, similar to having two cups of tea with a teaspoon of sugar. Energy drinks intake came in as a poor contestant, reported as being consumed less than once a month.

The study found that tea was the second most popular drink
The study found that tea was the second most popular drink

Looking back at the data from 2005, water intake appears to have quadrupled. Fizzy drink intake appears to have decreased, while diet fizzy drinks has increased, as has tea. This highlights a progressive, healthy trend, and suggests a limited role for a tax in Ireland on a wide scale.

However, not all the news is good. Numerous studies have demonstrated the inequalities in health between socioeconomic classes, which is unfortunately widening in many developed countries including Ireland. Studies worldwide have shown that adolescents of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to have unhealthy diets, and drink fizzier drinks. The latest report by the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative in Ireland found the prevalence of obese and overweight children to be in fact stabilizing, if not reducing. However, strikingly, this trend was not observed in those attending a DEIS (disadvantaged) school.

The recent study in Dublin found stark differences in beverage consumption between the students of a DEIS school and a private school. While students from the private school reported drinking only 1-3 fizzy drinks a month, DEIS school students reported drinking 2-4 per week.  Similarly, diet fizzy drinks and energy drinks were reported as being consumed less than once per month by the private school, but once weekly by the DEIS school. Water and smoothies were reported as being more frequently consumed by the private school students than the DEIS school students, though no differences were observed for milk and fruit juice between the two schools.

Smoothies have been found to be more commonly consumed at private schools than DEIS schools

These findings indisputably depict the discordance among socioeconomic profiles and align with previous studies associating an unhealthy lifestyle with low socioeconomic status. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland acknowledges that healthy foods can often be more expensive than those high in fat, sugar and salt, thus acting as a significant barrier to healthy eating – but is this the case here when tap water is free? Or is the message to drink less sugary drinks not getting through to some classes of society, or is it being delivered at all to begin with? Only 55% of post-primary schools in Ireland have a Healthy Eating Policy in place, and 30% have vending machines on site selling junk food and beverages.

Would a ‘sugar tax’ help curb these reported differences? If used to subsidise healthier products, maybe, but with the lack of up-to-date intake data on a national scale, it is unlikely the current hype will lead to anything substantial. Perhaps nutrition education and school interventions that incorporate the home environment, particularly in disadvantaged areas, are the way forward instead. Then, maybe, we can put all this fizzy business behind us once and for all.

Sophie Millar

Featured Image by Sam Howzit via Flickr; Embedded images by Laura D’Alessandro via Flickr and Andrea Parrish – Geyer via Flickr

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