The bottled water industry in the UK has frequently used the theme of hydration as a compelling reason for consumers to increase their consumption - indeed it is one of the main themes promoted by the country's industry association - but a new report from Scottish water group Highland Spring presents stark new evidence of just how poor British children's drinking habits have become.
The report, called A Spoonful of Sugar?, claims that consumption of sweet, fizzy drinks is increasing, with some 21 per cent of children aged 7-10 drinking up to 10 cans of carbonated drinks a week. More worrying still is that 80 per cent of these drinks are bought for their children by parents - clear evidence that the healthy drinking message is not getting through to the people who matter.
Giving children a taste for sweet food and drink products spells danger, as it can contribute to the seemingly unstoppable rise in obesity levels and tooth decay, while the risks associated with dehydration including urinary tract infections, constipation, headaches, poor concentration and reduced mental and physical performance.
"Unfortunately, what children drink is dictated more by habit than by the needs of their bodies," said Professor Elizabeth Kay of the Turner Dental School at the University of Manchester, cited in the report. "Drinking water helps to avoid the double damage which sweet, fizzy drinks do to children's teeth. The sugar in these drinks can be metabolised by the bacteria present in our mouths which produce acid that leads to tooth decay. The second problem comes from the erosion of the tooth which occurs as a result of the acidic nature of many sweetened carbonated drinks. Many people do not realise that these are two different problems (decay and erosion), both of which are widespread among British children.
"Water has no sugar, does no damage to teeth and contains no calories. It also has the added advantage of not containing additives, E numbers, flavourings or acidic potential. The problem for children is that water has not been fashionable, attractively packaged or easily available, so there has never been peer pressure among children to choose it as their preferred drink."
The water drinking habits of the British public have changed significantly in recent years, according to the report. With 45 per cent of the UK population now drinking bottled water, nearly 1.6 billion litres were consumed in 2001, with retail sales worth £900 million. However, most of this growth has come from adults, with children rarely catered for by the major water producers. The report shows that just 12 per cent of kids choose to drink water, but that 70 per cent prefer cola.
Many children never drink water at school - a factor which the report puts down, in part at least, to the increasing sponsorship of school canteens by carbonated drinks suppliers, coupled with a lack of water fountains. Nutritionists recommend that the average 7-year-old drink six glasses of water a day - around 1.4 litres - but very few children ever drink the recommended amount.
Having pioneered the UK's first bottled water for children with the launch of Looney Tunes Water in 2001, Highland Spring commissioned the report to promote healthier drinking habits among British kids.
"This report aims to challenge the poor drinking habits of British children who simply don't drink enough water. The biggest concern is that these appalling habits are detrimental to our children's health. We are urging parents and schools to offer more choice and options to encourage children to drink water and think before they drink," said Sally Stanley, marketing director for Looney Tunes.
With colourful packaging featuring popular cartoon characters and a trendy sports cap for the 330ml bottle, the Looney Tunes brand is the first real attempt in the UK market to bring some of the tried and tested soft drink marketing techniques to the water sector.
The report was commissioned by Highland Spring to mark the first anniversary of the brand, a year in which it has performed extremely well in breaking into the kids market. But what the report also shows is unless other companies follow suit and try to create water brands specifically for kids, the potential risk of obesity and tooth decay from excessive consumption of sugary soft drinks could continue to rise.
But the situation is not so drastic that kids should cut out carbonates altogether. As Martin Paterson, deputy director general of the UK Food and Drink Federation, commenting on the report, said: "For children to be healthy, they need to keep up their fluid intake, so they should be encouraged to try a variety of drinks to ensure they enjoy drinking. This can include a range of refreshing drinks, including water, fruit juices and carbonated drinks. However as with all food and drink, moderation is the key."
So a little bit of what you like can do you good, but getting the right balance is essential for healthy living, and that includes drinking water.