L.A. Schools' Diet-Drink Rule Assailed

Times Staff Writer

An effort to improve the apparently unappetizing image of cafeterias in Los Angeles' public high schools prompted a national food trade association to sharply criticize the attempt to increase student patronage.

The controversy stems from the Los Angeles Board of Education's vote last month to authorize the sale of artificially sweetened, caffeine-free soda in its network of cafeterias. Before the menu change, the cafeterias served only fruit juices and milk, a selection that will remain available, but one that in the past apparently drove many students to nearby fast-food outlets for meals.

The board's move, which allows the sale of artificially sweetened sodas only, excludes the more popular, naturally sweetened drinks such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and 7-Up. The decision recently was criticized by the Sugar Assn., a Washington-based trade association.

The board took the action in an attempt to stem losses, estimated to be $2 million in the last two years, incurred by the food service system in the 49 high schools.

Brisk sales of artificially sweetened Diet Pepsi Free began two weeks ago, according to a school official. In fact, more than 11,000 16-ounce servings were being sold daily, said Bruce Brady, the board's food service director. The figure is expected to increase as all the district's cafeterias become equipped with soda-dispensing machines.

However, the Sugar Assn. issued a condemnation of the move to exclude sugar-sweetened soda, calling it "bureaucratic ineptitude at its zenith." The group also stated that by ignoring available scientific evidence which endorses sugar's safety that the Board of Education was creating a climate of "quackery."

"It's beyond belief that school board members would actually prefer that kids consume a synthetic product containing a health warning to a natural sweetener that meets government requirements as Generally Recognized As Safe status," said Jack O'Connell, president of the Sugar Assn.

Diet Pepsi Free contains NutraSweet, the brand name for aspartame. Beverages sweetened with the chemical must carry a warning that one of the substance's major components is phenylalanine, a naturally occurring amino acid, which in excess can cause brain damage to those people sensitive to the substance.

There also has been renewed interest in Congress for yet another review of aspartame's safety. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) has called into question the validity of several laboratory tests offered in support of NutraSweet during the Food and Drug Administration's decade-long evaluation of the sweetener. Metzenbaum has also asked the FDA to reopen its investigation of reported adverse health reactions linked to NutraSweet consumption.

Although Diet Pepsi Free does not contain saccharin, many beverage manufacturers have combined the less expensive saccharin with the more costly NutraSweet in order to artificially sweeten diet drinks. Products which include saccharin as an ingredient must carry a warning label stating that the ingredient was found to be a cancer agent in laboratory tests.

School board member Rita Walters, who voted in favor of the diet drink authorization, dismissed the Sugar Assn.'s complaint.

"Nobody said that sugar was ever unsafe, but it's unhealthy--that's the whole premise," Walters said. "It rots your teeth and puts weight on kids that do not get enough exercise and dulls the taste buds for other more healthy types of foods. And in the teen-age diet it becomes a substitute for real food."

Walters said that she is not an advocate of any carbonated beverage and would just as soon have the products removed from the schools. However, the diet-drink vote was a compromise on the board between those members who favored a variety of sodas in the cafeteria and others who opposed all such beverages.

"(The board's mission is) to teach these students and we teach them nutrition," she said. "If they are to learn that (certain foods) are unhealthy and then we turn around and make money off these (unhealthy foods), then what position does that put us in?"

The Sugar Assn.'s O'Connell took issue with each health concern raised by Walters.

There is no direct relationship between sugar consumption and dental cavities, he said, quoting studies that showed sugar is just one of several fermentable carbohydrates that could promote tooth decay.

He also said that no single food, such as sugar, contributes to obesity. Furthermore, sugar acts as an appetite enhancer, rather than depressant, and its major use in foods is to make items more palatable, he said.

Oddly enough, most of the high-calorie sodas are no longer sweetened with sugar. Beginning in the mid-1970s the major beverage companies began changing their drink formulas by substituting high fructose corn sweeteners for beet or cane sugar. Many beverages now use only the less expensive corn-based substances.

"Maybe the people who should be speaking the loudest on this issue are the corn people," O'Connell said. "But this is an arbitrary, ridiculous, pseudo-scientific decision that someone needs to straighten out."

Los Angeles' high school students don't have to go as far as the nearest McDonald's or Burger King to get their favorite cola or lemon-lime drink. Most public schools have vending machines featuring a variety of sweetened and diet sodas. The profits from the soda machines go toward the funding of various school activities.

The board rescinded a short-lived ban on such machines when it discovered that the subsequent loss of profits cut funding for student events.

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