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Public-health experts applaud New Brunswick’s decision to ban chocolate milk, fruit juice in schools

In the battle against childhood obesity, pop and energy drinks have been a prime target for public-health officials who say sugary drinks have no place in children’s diets. Now New Brunswick is upping the ante, becoming the first jurisdiction in Canada to ban flavoured milk and fruit juice in schools.

The new policy – which means flavoured milk and juice can’t be offered or sold as part of school meal programs, in vending machines, at fundraisers or during any special events – is being hailed by public-health experts who say other provinces should follow suit as a way of dealing with a looming issue: An estimated 30 per cent of children between five and 17 are considered overweight or obese in Canada.

“They are actively taking a step that will help students’ health,” said David Hammond, professor in the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo.

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The New Brunswick decision comes as Health Canada prepares to release its new food guide and stakeholders wait to see how the department will handle the contentious issue of flavoured sugary drinks. The current guide says half a cup of 100-per-cent fruit juice can count as one serving in the fruit and vegetable category, while a cup of chocolate milk counts as a serving of dairy or alternatives.

Fruit juice and flavoured milk are permitted in many Canadian schools in part because they are included in the food guide as healthy options. For instance, Ontario says items such as chocolate milk or apple juice are allowed in schools because they are part of the food guide. B.C.’s guidelines for food and beverages at schools say to choose products from Canada’s Food Guide, which can include fruit juice and flavoured milk. Meanwhile, Alberta does not allow flavoured milk to be offered as part of its new school meal program, but the province doesn’t have a ban on flavoured milk or juice being sold in schools or offered during special events.

The move in New Brunswick should also send the message to parents that sugary drinks, even if they contain vitamins or nutrients, are an unnecessary part of the diet and can contribute to health problems, Mr. Hammond said.

“The message that parents need to get … is drink milk without cubes of sugar in it,” he said. “And second, eat your fruit, don’t drink it.”

Jim Goetz, president of the Canadian Beverage Association, says such a move could worsen the nutrition of young Canadians. The association has urged Health Canada to keep fruit juice in the guide.

“All diets need to be balanced,” Mr. Goetz said in an interview. He highlighted the findings of an expert roundtable published last year in the Journal of Food Science that concluded fruit juice can help people meet the daily recommendations for fruit and that restricting access to it could have “unintended consequences” for nutrition. The roundtable was hosted by Welch’s, which sells a range of juice products, and participants received an honorarium from the company.

A 2015 study funded by the Dairy Farmers of Canada found students in schools that limit access to flavoured dairy products ended up drinking less milk. The Dairy Farmers of Canada did not respond to interview requests.

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But Yoni Freedhoff, a nutrition expert and assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, said the findings of the dairy study are misleading and that eliminating sugary drinks such as chocolate milk from schools will help, not hinder, nutrition.

“It’s a liquid candy bar,” Dr. Freehoff said.

Chocolate milk has about 6.5 teaspoons of sugar per one cup serving, compared to about three in a cup of 2 per cent unflavoured milk. Meanwhile, 100-per-cent fruit juice can have about four to five teaspoons of sugar a cup.

A child who eats a piece of fruit will consume sugar. But whole fruit helps people feel full, whereas juice does not, and this can lead people to consume extra calories, said Manuel Arango, director of health policy and advocacy at Heart and Stroke.

“We just don’t need to encourage the consumption of sugar in drinks in the population,” Mr. Arango said. “It’s completely unnecessary.”

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