Limiting soft drinks would help children

If schools removed soda pop machines from their premises, it would hurt them financially, but potential improvements in students' behavior and health should make this an easy decision.

The prevalence of obesity in children has been highlighted for the past year, causing school officials and parents to rethink what they allow youngsters to eat.

Now enters the issue of caffeine, an ingredient in most soft drinks found in vending machines. Many schools or their parent-teacher organizations receive a share of profits from the sales.

A study released this week at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association shows a big difference in behavior when children ingest caffeine.

The study, led by a psychiatrist and neurologist in Chicago, involved 20 first-graders whose teachers documented their behavior over three weeks. On the days the children were allowed to have sodas, half of the students had drinks containing caffeine and the others were given caffeine-free drinks. Neither the teachers nor students knew who was drinking what.

Interestingly, children with caffeinated cola drank more than the other students. Also, behavioral problems with the first group were rated as 432 percent worse when they consumed caffeinated drinks.

While the study was confined strictly to this small group of first-graders, parents and educators should pay attention to the results.

We can't believe caffeine affects only first-graders. It's no secret that adults feel the effects of caffeine, so it's not a leap to assume children of all ages can be affected by caffeine, some more than others because of varied sensitivity of individual bodies.

Let's also recognize that caffeinated drinks are more of an issue for older students than younger ones.

If behavior falls off more than 400 percent, learning can't take place - definitely not for the child consuming the caffeine but also not for the rest of the class that suffers from the disruptive behavior.

Drinks aren't the only place caffeine is found. Chocolate also is on the list.

Because sugar-laced food and drinks also affect body chemistry, they too can keep children from concentrating on school work.

A decade ago, we were concerned that poor children's ability to learn was hampered by lack of breakfast. With that problem taken care of, attention now should be focused on breaking caffeine and sugar habits, regardless of socioeconomic status.