NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Despite hopes that the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can steer people toward healthier eating choices, there's no evidence the program currently influences - for better or worse - how many sugary drinks kids consume, according to a new study.
When children from families participating in the federal assistance program for poor families, commonly known as food stamps, were compared to peers not in SNAP, there was no significant difference in how much milk, soda and fruit juice the kids drank.
The findings don't mean that banning the use of food stamps to buy sweetened beverages, as some have proposed, wouldn't cut down on their consumption.
But the results do suggest at least that having food stamps doesn't encourage families with kids to buy more unhealthy drinks, according to the report in the August issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
In short, "SNAP does not affect beverage consumption among low-income children," said Meenakshi Fernandes, the study's author and a senior analyst at the health and policy research organization Abt Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
SNAP provides - on average - about $284 per month for people with low incomes to use at grocery stores on food. Purchases of alcohol, tobacco and other non-food items are not permitted.
In 2010, New York City attempted to add sugary drinks to the banned-items list, arguing that sweetened drinks are helping to spur the obesity epidemic, which disproportionately affects poorer households (see Reuters story of October 8, 2010 at).
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, denied the city permission to implement its proposed pilot project in 2011.
That, however, has not stopped other proposals for limiting soda consumption on public health grounds.
One approach is to impose an additional tax on sugary drinks, such as that passed by the city of El Monte, California late last month. (see Reuters story of July 27, 2012.).
In New York City, the Mayor recently proposed limiting the size of drink containers that can be sold, to cut down on "super-sized" beverage purchases.
According to Fernandes, approximately one fifth of American homes participate in SNAP and children live in more than half of those homes, so the question of whether the program influences food and drink choices interested her.
To find out, she used information from a national survey that asked fifth and eighth grade students how many times a week they drank certain beverages.
Ultimately, a sample group of 3,126 kids, all of whom lived in homes with incomes less than $75,000 were surveyed in 2004 and 2007. About one in five of those children were SNAP participants.
Overall, Fernandes found that kids from SNAP households drank sugary drinks slightly less than those who were not in the program, and drank fruit juice and milk slightly more. The differences were so small, though, they could have been due to chance.
Among eight-graders, for instance, kids overall reported drinking milk eight times a week, soft drinks six times a week and fruit juice 5.6 times a week. Those in the SNAP program, on average, reported 0.6 fewer episodes of soft drink consumption and 0.51 more episodes of milk consumption.
Anne Barnhill, a lecturer in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, told Reuters Health that although she thinks the study is great, it still does not answer the question of whether telling people they cannot buy soda through SNAP would reduce sugary drink consumption.
Barnhill, who supported New York City's 2010 proposal, said more research is needed into that topic along with how incentive programs work, such as the ability to buy fruits and vegetables at a discounted price.
"What we really want to do is increase the consumption of healthy food and decrease the consumption of unhealthy food," she said.
SOURCE: Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, online June 6, 2012.