Analysis: it's part of a European trend which has seen a decline in the consumption of sugary soft drinks by adolescents

A recent research study found that young people in Ireland have enjoyed the sharpest decline in the consumption of sugary soft drinks across Europe. This is certainly good news for Irish adolescents, but it is also good news for their European peers, since a decline in intake of sugary soft drinks was also observed in all 21 countries involved in the research.

Sugary soft drinks are fizzy or carbonated drinks that have sugar added to them. These drinks fall under the umbrella term of sugar-sweetened beverages, which also include fruit drinks, sports/energy drinks and other drinks with added sugar. High intakes of these drinks contribute to childhood obesity, but they also contribute to tooth decay, because of both the added sugar and the acid in these beverages. Remember that diet soft drinks still contribute to tooth decay even if they don't contain added sugar because of the acid in these products.

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Sugary soft drinks are a significant source of added sugar to the diet. They can also replace more healthy foods and drinks leading to a poorer quality diet overall. Because of the negative effects on health, the goal is to have roughly 5 to 10% of your energy from free sugars per day. Free sugars include added sugar and sugars naturally present in honey, fruit juices and concentrates.

This drop in intake of sugary soft drinks is good news for Irish adolescents and their families because we know about the positive impact of healthy, balanced and varied diets on adolescent health and about the negative impact of poor diets. Ideally, milk and water should be consumed by teenagers, and drinks with added sugar should only be drank occasionally. While some may assume that sugary soft drinks have been replaced by diet soft drinks in adolescents, our research has also shown a decline in the intake of diet soft drinks in Ireland over time.

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There are likely to be a combination of reasons why we have seen this drop in intake of sugary and diet soft drinks. Certainly, we know that many different types of programmes are needed to influence health behaviours including food choices.

Firstly, we can look at settings where adolescents spend a considerable portion of their time. Schools and some of the school-based programmes that have been introduced over time are important contexts for health.

Many schools in Ireland have taken a whole school approach to health. They have removed or reduced the availability of these drinks from school grounds and introduced policies preventing students from bringing these products to school. Improving access to drinking water is also another important change introduced by some schools. In fact, combining these approaches is more likely to have a positive change in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. Having food or nutrition standards in schools can also enable schools to develop school policies that must be implemented.

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From RTÉ One's Claire Byrne Live, Claire speaks to Micheal Sheridan who has given up sugary drinks after dentist David Murnaghan said he would help fix his teeth if he did so

Environmental and policy interventions also play a role in enabling people to improve their dietary choices. These include food or menu labelling which can influence sales of products. Other possible reasons for the fall in sugary soft drinks include promotion of healthier beverages in supermarkets and/or price increases on sugar sweetened beverages per se. However, our study did not examine why the changes in sugary soft drinks occurred, but other research tells us that these interventions are need to bring about change in behaviours.

Some may look to the sugar tax as an influence on our findings. However, our study could not examine the impact of the tax itself since it was introduced in Ireland in 2018 and our study looks at data from 2002 to 2018. There is a possibility that media attention leading up to the introduction of the sugar tax had an effect on consumers. The introduction of taxes and subsidies are an opportunity to communicate and signal to consumers the detrimental effects of sugar and sugar sweetened beverages on health. Whether it's adolescents themselves, rather than the parent responsible for food purchasing, who respond to sugar and other food taxes/incentives is unknown.

High intakes of these drinks contribute to childhood obesity, but they also contribute to tooth decay

A key feature of our study is that we demonstrated differences in daily consumption of sugar sweetened beverages between less affluent and more affluent adolescent groups. Worryingly, these differences have increased over time in some countries, including in Ireland. Those who are the least affluent are more likely to drink sugar sweetened beverages every day than adolescents who are more affluent.

These inequalities in adolescent dietary habits need greater attention. An approach could be the availability of free and healthy school meals to all students, something which would not increase stigma or shame related to food support or subsidies.

More importantly, the root cause of dietary inequalities such as poverty and high food prices are what need to be tackled. Families on a low-income are constrained by poverty and high food prices resulting in less choice from a limited range of foods and drinks. Tackling these social determinants of health are likely to have the greatest impact on dietary habits long term, including the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ