For the experiment, researchers gave 2,381 parents online surveys
asking them to select a beverage for their child from a range of 12
sugar-sweetened sodas and juices as well as eight low-sugar options
like water, unsweetened juices and diet sodas.
When pictures of the sugar-sweetened drinks appeared, parents were
randomly shown warning labels, calorie icons or no health
information on the front of the containers.
Absent any health information, 60 percent of parents picked a sugary
drink. But with warning labels, just 40 percent of parents chose
“We were surprised at how large the effect was,” said lead study
author Christina Roberto of the Perelman School of Medicine at the
University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
“Interestingly, calorie labels displayed on the beverages – which is
what the beverage industry is currently doing – did not
significantly influence parents’ choices,” Roberto added by email.
Two-thirds of U.S. children aged two to 11 years old drink at least
one sugary drink a day, a habit that is linked to the risk of weight
gain and obesity in adulthood, as well as cavities.
Part of the problem is that even when parents understand that sodas
might be unhealthy, they still don’t grasp that many sports drinks,
juices and teas can also contain lots of added sugars, Roberto and
colleagues note in the journal Pediatrics.
The study findings suggest that labels may be one way to discourage
consumption of sugary drinks, though more research is needed to see
how warnings work on consumers in the real world, the researchers
Lawmakers in New York and California are considering bills to
require warning labels on sugar-sweetened beverages that are similar
to tobacco warnings on cigarette boxes.
To assess the potential of labels to deter sweetened drink
purchases, Roberto and colleagues showed some parents in the online
survey one of four labels, with slight variations in wording to
emphasize different risks such as obesity and diabetes.
One matched the label currently being considered in California:
“SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes
to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.”
Another label tweaked this wording to focus on prevention: “SAFETY
WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to
preventable diseases like obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.”
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Results didn’t differ significantly based on the slight variations
in the wording on the warning labels, the study found.
Parents’ education level also didn’t influence which beverage they
selected for their child in the experiment.
Aside from the difficulty of mimicking real-world behavior in an
online survey, another limitation of the study is that it didn’t
measure the impact of the size of warnings or package design, the
In the real world, for example, parents may not focus as much on
warning labels because they have to contend with children clamoring
for sugary drinks in the grocery store aisles and yelling when they
don’t get their way, noted David Studdert, a health law researcher
at Stanford University in California who wasn’t involved in the
“We don’t know how the findings would translate into an actual
retail environment,” Studdert said by email. “They almost certainly
represent an upper bound on what might be possible, but the study
suggests it would be worthwhile trying to find out.”
Most parents do want to make healthy choices for their children,
however, and labels that make it easy to decipher which options are
better may help influence shopping habits, said Julia Wolfson, a
health policy researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore
who wasn’t involved in the study.
“Reduced consumption of sugary beverages among children and adults
alike could be extremely beneficial for efforts to reduce obesity
rates as these beverages are still widely consumed and are a primary
source of added sugars and extra calories in Americans’ diets,”
Wolfson said by email.
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/1Q8GT20 Pediatrics, online January 14, 2016.
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