Can you persuade kids to ditch soda for water?

February 10, 2014

WBEZ/Monica Eng
Strawberry-lemon and cucumber-lime water were the star attractions at a recent water tasting in an Oak Park middle school. The tastings are part of a campaign to get kids to choose water over sugary drinks.

February is “Rethink Your Drink” month in Illinois, by proclamation of Gov. Pat Quinn. And the drinks that consumers are being asked to rethink are the high-cal beverages that many Illinoisans and other Americans polish off by the liter.

The campaign to raise awareness about the health effects of sugary beverages coincides with a new study linking excess sugar consumption to increased risk of heart disease.

Schools, churches, and state agencies are holding programs as part of the campaign aimed at improving Illinois residents’ soft drink habits.

One novel approach was launched last week at Brooks Middle School in the west Chicago suburb of Oak Park, which focused on quenching thirst with water rather than pop.

From WBEZ Chicago, Chewing the Fat is a weekly podcast with food journalists Louisa Chu and Monica Eng. Together they tackle cooking, dining, culture food policy, culinary characters and more.

Sandy Noel, a retired teacher and co-chairwoman of the Governor’s Council on Health and Fitness, told students, “When you’re dehydrated, your brain kind of goes from a grape to a raisin. It actually shrinks a little bit and you feel a little wilted.”

The 7th and 8th graders then lined up for a taste-off pitting two flavors of infused water, one strawberry-lemon and the other cucumber-lime.

As the kids filed through the tasting lines, their votes seemed to lean toward the strawberry-infused water. But the tasting process also left them with some new opinions on beverages in general. 

“I know our body doesn’t really need sugar all the time,” said Tate Ferguson, “and so if you want something that tastes good and is better for your body, you should drink this.”

“I like the cucumber-lime water,” said Max Walton. “I think I would definitely drink it during sports because it gets you more hydrated than soda.”  

Like their male classmates, many of the girls said they were open to swapping their usual drinks for water in the future.

“Usually before I do martial arts, I am really tired, so I just have an energy drink,” said Zoharia Drizin. “So if I start drinking this instead, I think I will be energized in a healthier way.”

Her classmate Claire Cooke agreed.   

“I would totally choose this over soda because it’s much better for you,” Cooke said. “Soda makes you more thirsty, but water keeps you energized for a long period of time. I’m in a lot of musical theater and when I’m dancing I need lots of water.”

For Abby Nichol, the contest was a little closer.

“I love soda,” she said, “but this is very, very close to it. So it’s actually a very tough choice. Personally, I like this a little bit more than soda.”

In the case of one student, the presentation -- which included displays of the amounts of sugar in soda and sports drinks -- made her rethink her lunchtime drink.

“I usually have a Gatorade in my lunch,” said Cait Egan, a 7th grader. “But now I am starting to double guess that, because I saw how much sugar is in a Gatorade. And I think this water tastes better to me.”

Still not all of the students agreed. Alec Fragos was especially outspoken in his opposition.

“It was like drinking out of a faucet,” Fragos said. “It didn’t have any taste. I wouldnt choose it over soda because I don’t feel it would help me feel more hydrated … It’s got no pop in the mouth. It’s kind of flat.”

Rethink Your Drink organizers say Fragos and other holdouts will have more opportunities for conversion in the future. The Oak Park Middle Schools plan to repeat the tasting monthly with new flavor combinations each time.   

Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing the Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org