Childhood obesity is already a chronic problem and is forecast to escalate further during the next few decades. Soft drinks are frequently cited as one of the dietary villains behind this worrying trend, but Annette Farr believes voluntary measures taken by drinks companies on both sides of the Atlantic demonstrate the industry's commitment to tackling the problem.

At a time when childhood obesity has become the most prevalent nutritional disease in developed countries, according to the UK-based National Obesity Forum, the long-awaited voluntary code of practice for drinks provided in UK schools has been released by The School Food Trust (SFT). The code aims to "provide the best for our children", encouraging the provision of healthier drinks that are unsweetened and additive-free wherever possible.

Under the code, drinks available in schools should contain no added colours. Natural sweeteners are allowed in milk drinks to encourage the consumption of calcium but should not be used in fruit juices which contain their own natural sweeteners. No drinks should contain artificial sweeteners. The code also stipulates that drinks should not contain other additives "except those necessary for stability, regulation of acidity, and the preservation of the integrity of fruit juices". Natural or nature-identical flavourings are permitted only in flavoured milk or non-dairy equivalents. Fortification should be used only where "there is evidence of a clear and focused public health benefit".

The SFT expects schools to sign up to the drinks code and commit to providing only compliant drinks to encourage healthier eating practices amongst their pupils.

There is no paucity of choice for schools, such has been the innovation in developing healthy, low-calorie drinks for children. As Richard Cooke, marketing and sales director at Calypso Soft Drinks, a long-time producer of children's drinks, observes: "The trend for healthy drinks, particularly 100% juice drinks, in schools, particularly primary schools, is experiencing something of a renaissance. Juice drinks are on the increase, whether in lunchboxes or in school canteens. Pure juices have shown a 16% increase in sales value in the last 12 months."

Drinks with a high juice content carrying the five-a-day message have dominated newcomers to the children's market. Feel Good Drinks, for example, has recently launched its Kids range, predominantly aimed at the 6- to 12-year-old market. These are 100% natural juice drinks, with each 250ml bottle comprising two-thirds juice and one-third water. And from BottleGreen there is a new premium cordial range for children called Junior. The company believes that a premium cordials market for children has the potential to be worth in the region of GBP17m (US$29.2m) over the next five years.

At the same time, bottled water producers have successfully been targeting children. According to AC Nielsen figures quoted in The Natural Choice, Highland Spring's annual guide to the bottled water market, children's bottled water consumption was up 7.7% in the 12 months to July 2008 to 19.2m litres.

Meanwhile in the US, two years into the three-year implementation of a nationwide voluntary code on beverages in schools, the industry can demonstrate success. The School Beverage Guidelines were drawn up by The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a joint initiative of the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association, working with representatives of The Coca-Cola Company, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, PepsiCo and the American Beverage Association (ABA). The ultimate aim is to have removed all full-calorie soft drinks from schools by the 2009-2010 school year. Beverage options allowed under the guidelines include 100% juice, low-fat milk and bottled water in elementary and middle schools, with the addition of diet sodas, calorie-capped sports drinks and enhanced waters, and low-calorie teas in high schools.

The School Beverage Guidelines Progress Report 2007-2008 showed that beverage calories shipped to schools had decreased by 58% since 2004. Further, the report showed that 79% of schools were now in compliance with the guidelines, ahead of the target for 2008-2009 of 75%.

"We're cutting calories in schools, plain and simple," says Susan Neely, president and CEO of ABA. "This industry made a bold commitment two years ago to change the beverage mix in schools, and we are delivering. We recognise that schools are unique places and we're doing our part to help students understand the importance of balancing calories burned with calories consumed."

Sterling efforts have been made on both sides of the Atlantic and indeed worldwide by beverage producers to help combat childhood obesity and promote healthy, nutritional drinking. New lower and zero-calorie drinks using natural ingredients have been developed, while the industry has co-operated with governments over responsible marketing to children and has participated in initiatives to ensure a healthy choice of drinks for children whilst at school.

Alarmingly, our children's waistlines continue to expand. The UK government's scientific expert committee, the Foresight team, is predicting that by 2050, 55% of boys and 70% of girls in the UK could be overweight or obese. But when it comes to the calories in children's soft drinks, the industry is clearly taking action to ensure the provision of healthier drink options for the young.