Can warning labels keep parents from buying sugary drinks?

Health warning labels on sugary beverages could dissuade parents from buying them for the 66% of children aged 2-11 who drink them, a new study published in the journal Pediatrics says. In an online simulation, 2,381 parents with children aged 6-11 were divided in six groups to purchase drinks for their kids from 20 choices, including beverages such as sodas and juice drinks, as well as water, juices, and diet sodas. One was shown no labels in the images of the drinks, while another saw calorie-listing labels. The four remaining groups saw four different warning labels based on a proposed bill in California. The wording on those labels read as follows:

·         Drinking beverages with added sugar[s] contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.

·         Drinking beverages with added sugar[s] contributes to weight gain, diabetes, and tooth decay.

·         Drinking beverages with added sugar[s] contributes to preventable diseases like obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.

·         Drinking beverages with added sugar[s] contributes to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay.

Lead researchers Christina A. Roberto, Diandra Wong, Aviva Musicus, and David Hammond found that 40% of parents who saw the health warning labels picked a sugary beverage, as opposed to 60% of those who didn’t see any labels. Moreover, 53% of the ones who saw the calorie labels also chose sugary drinks. “The warning labels seem to help in a way that the calorie labels do not,” Roberto, who is an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, said. According to her, a 6.5oz sugary beverage contains as many as 7 teaspoons of sugar – almost two times the recommended amount for children.

Seventy-three percent of the parents in the study said they supported a government policy requiring health warning labels on sugary beverages, suggesting that the labels may not only have the desired effect of reducing sugary drink consumption, but also that they could boost bills requiring sugar-sweetened beverages to include such labels on their packaging, not unlike tobacco warning labels on cigarette packs. In addition to California, New York is considering a similar bill. “We are trying to make a link between the high sugar content and the calories and the actual downstream outcomes [of sugary drinks]. You can say that something has 18 or 24 grams of sugar, but most people have no clue what a gram is,” Hammond, a professor in the school of public health at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, said. “[Health warning labels] provide an extra layer of information that people can understand.” And he says ‘people’ he means parents, because “the typical 6- or 7-year-old is not walking into a store and buying their own beverage.”

Outside experts have pronounced themselves on the results of the research. “Just as we see with public health efforts to decrease smoking with warning labels, warning labels about sugary drinks will be effective with some parents but not all,” registered dietitian and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas Lona Sandon said. “Based on the study, it appears some will take the information to heart. But about 40 percent still chose sugary beverages in the study. That is still a big number. Nonetheless, it adds another layer of educating and influencing parents to try to make healthier choices for their children.” She added that “not all research is supportive of the claims made on the warning label used in this study. Obesity and diabetes occur as a result of a number of factors working together – such as physical inactivity, high-fat high-calorie food choices, genetic predisposition, etcetera – not sugary drinks alone.”

On the other hand, assistant professor in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University Sara Folta said that “this research is a promising first step but we need to study [labels in other age groups] before a major policy is unveiled that could have unintended negative consequences for particular segments of the population,” such as teenagers who might be tempted to drink something that is bad for their health. She also thinks that “the issue is less about soda and more about sports drinks and other juice drinks that aren't 100% juice that parents perceive as maybe being healthy.” On that same subject, Sandon pointed out that “sports drinks… are only needed for physical activity lasting more than 90 minutes. If you are not sweating and active, you probably don't need a sports drink.”

Related: I’m kicking my Soda addiction (…for real this time)