Young people in Ireland have enjoyed the sharpest decline in the consumption of sugary soft drinks across Europe, researchers at NUI Galway have found.
A new study published by the University’s Health Promotion Research Centre reveals a dramatic shift in habits of Irish adolescents between 2002 and 2018.
The research, published in the European Journal of Nutrition, analysed data dating back almost 20 years on more than 530,000 school children aged 11, 13 and 15, across 21 European countries.
What has the research into sugary soft drink consumption found?
— Daily consumption of sugary soft drinks declined in all 21 countries from 2002-2018
— Ireland experienced the sharpest drop in consumption - from 37.4% to 5.7% of respondents saying they consumed sugary soft drinks everyday (a fall of 84.8% ).
— Only the Netherlands, Belgium, England and Scotland had higher frequency of consumption than Ireland as a starting point for the research.
— Ireland’s dramatic fall was followed by England, with a fall of 74.9%, and Norway, with a fall of 72.1%.
In most countries, including Ireland, boys were more likely to report daily soft-drink consumption than girls.
Professor Colette Kelly from the Health Promotion Research Centre at NUI Galway, and co-Principal Investigator of the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC ) study, said: “While we welcome this substantial reduction in frequency of consumption of soft-drinks, choosing water or milk is the healthier choice for adolescents.”
The research identified trends in soft drink consumption by socio-economic group, with differences in daily consumption between less affluent and more affluent groups getting larger over time in some countries, including in Ireland.
In 2018, daily consumption of sugary soft drinks was more prevalent among the least affluent adolescents in 11 out of 21 countries - the 20% least affluent adolescents were more likely to report daily drinking of sugary soft drinks than their most affluent peers. In Ireland, 11% of children in the lowest social class group reported intake of sugary soft drinks on a daily basis, compared with 4% of children from highest social class groups.
Professor Kelly said: “Factors such as a whole school approach to health promotion and access to drinking water in schools contributed to the decrease in sugary soft drink consumption. While it is positive to note the reduction, inequalities are still evident and need attention.
“It is clear that more work is required to address dietary inequalities. Specific mechanisms to target dietary inequalities include wide availability of school meals - this means that all students get the same food and thus reduces any stigma related to food support or subsidies. This is a universal means of providing healthy meals and reducing sugar consumption.”
Professor Kelly said: “As well as serving as a monitoring and a knowledge-generating function, one of the key objectives of the Health Behaviours in School-aged Children study has been to inform policy and practice, with the Irish section of the study being funded by the Department of Health. The cross-national survey covers diverse aspects of adolescent health and social behaviour, including self-assessment of mental health, body image, dietary habits, engagement in physical activity, support from families and peers, tobacco, alcohol and cannabis use, and bullying.
“Data collected for the study are based on surveys completed by thousands of adolescents. The study provides high quality evidence calling for more effective and targeted interventions by governments and policy-makers to tackle the effects of inequalities among young people in Europe.”