Outraged Advocates Say Sports Drink, Soda Companies Shaped Drafted Health Policy for Parks

Rules would set nutritional standards for vending machines


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Rusty Clark via Flickr

A decision about the vending machine options for parched park visitors is falling into the hands of local officials this week. 

A beverage industry representative says it’s about letting people buy sports drinks like Gatorade and supporting locally manufactured sodas. A health advocate says it’s about acknowledging the risks involved in quaffing more than a third of a cup of sugar and large quantities of sodium.

Either way, the resolution under consideration by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC ) will determine what snacks and drinks appear in vending machines across parks in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

But this week health advocates expressed outrage at some recent amendments to the drafted vending machine guidelines that they say are designed to benefit specific beverage companies. 

“Why push what we know is unhealthy?” said Shawn McIntosh, executive director of Sugar Free Kids Maryland. “What is the best drink for hydration after you’ve been active for an hour playing on a basketball court? It’s not Gatorade. It’s water.”

Casey Anderson, M-NCPPC member and chair of the Montgomery County Planning Board, said to his knowledge, the amendments to the vending machine resolution were aimed at accommodating products like standard-sized Gatorade.

An earlier version of the guidelines would’ve limited sodium in all vending machine products to 200 milligrams and effectively ruled out sales of 20-ounce bottles of Gatorade, which typically contain 270 milligrams. The updated version that M-NCPPC will consider on Wednesday, increased the proposed limit to 270 milligrams. The changes also raised nutritional caps from 250 to 290 calories, potentially avoiding a de facto ban on drinks like Mountain Dew, Fanta, Barq’s root beer and Minute Maid lemonade.

The American Heart Association recommends an added sugar limit of nine teaspoons for men and six for women. McIntosh noted that 250 calories of sugar already works out to about a third of a cup of the sweetener, or about 16 teaspoons.

“And anything higher than that is just adding additional teaspoons,” she said.

McIntosh claimed beverage industry lobbyists were behind the revisions to the guidelines supported by the M-NCPPC in March.

The executive vice president of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association said last month’s commission vote took her group by surprise, and they were only able to provide feedback after the fact. The lobbyist, Ellen Valentino, said she simply raised the points she would’ve made at the hearing if she’d been aware of it.

The initial calorie and sodium restrictions would’ve cut out many sports drinks products and beverages manufactured nearby, she said.

A Pepsi bottling plant is located in Cheverly and Coca-Cola bottles in Silver Spring.

“Whether inadvertently or not, the policy had the effect of banning local products that are made within Prince George’s County and Montgomery County,” Valentino said. “The good news is we embrace healthy options and healthy choices. … All this does is say, ‘Hey, we don’t want to ban these popular options.’ ”

She noted the latest policy draft still sets a goal of ensuring that healthy food and beverage items make up at least half of vending machine products. Food in this category couldn’t exceed 200 calories per package, 35 percent of calories from fat or 10 percent of calories from saturated fat. To be considered healthy, beverages would have to contain fewer than 40 calories, with exceptions for low-fat milk and certain types of juice.

Anderson said he doesn’t have a firm stance on the amendments and looks forward to discussing the changes with other commission members at Wednesday’s meeting in Silver Spring.

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