Picture Warnings on Kids' Drinks Could Help Fight Childhood Obesity

Kelly Wairimu Davis, MS

February 07, 2022

Sugary beverages — juice, soda, decadent lattes, sports drinks, and more — are the leading source of both calories and added sugar in the American diet, according to the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. But new research published in PLOS Medicine has found that picture warnings on soda containers or juice boxes could discourage parents from buying those unhealthful products.

The new study, from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that parents were 17% less likely to buy sugary drinks for their kids when the beverages had the graphical ― and graphic — warnings on the products.


The researchers turned a laboratory setting into a "minimart," and parents were told to choose one drink and snack for their children, along with one household item (to disguise the purpose of the study).

Some parents were presented sweetened drinks with images on the products reflecting type 2 diabetes and heart damage. Others were shown sugary drinks with a barcode label and no picture warning.

Forty-five percent of parents chose sugary drinks for their children when the products had no picture warning, but only 28% of parents chose sugary beverages with the cautionary images.

"When people make choices about what food to buy, they are juggling dozens of factors, like taste, cost, and advertising, and are looking at many products at once," Lindsey Smith Taillie, PhD, a nutrition researcher and the senior author of the paper, said.

"Showing that warnings can cut through the noise of everything else that's happening in a food store is powerful evidence that they would help reduce sugary drink purchases in the real world."

Children are particularly prone to overindulging on sugar, largely due to companies' frequent marketing displays of pleasurable-looking and seemingly "thirst-quenching" sweet beverages.

Drink packaging also can be misleading.

Fruits and vegetables displayed on the front of many kids' beverages often lead parents to buy what they believe are "healthy" options, when these drinks could be packed with sugar, according to a recent study in the journal Appetite.

Parents are often "doing the best with what information they have," so more education about nutrition, through picture warning labels, for example, would make a difference, said Caroline Fausel, a Paleo food blogger, podcaster, and author of Prep, Cook, Freeze: A Paleo Meal Planning Cookbook.

Healthier Choices on the Rise

The American Beverage Association, an industry trade group, shared the current steps that major companies are taking to help lower Americans' sugar intake.

Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Keurig Dr Pepper joined forces in 2014 to create the Balance Calories Initiative, which aims to reduce beverage calories in the national diet.

Coca-Cola now offers 250 beverages with zero to low calories, and Keurig Dr Pepper has 158 products with 40 calories or less. Pepsi sells 7.5-oz mini-cans, along with various other sizes, to encourage portion control.

"Beverage companies are fully transparent about the calories and sugar in our products, and we are offering more choices with less sugar than ever before," William Dermody, vice president of media and public affairs for the American Beverage Association, said in a statement. "We agree that too much sugar is not good for anyone, and clear information about beverages is most helpful to consumers."

Other big companies are also taking strides to lower sugar content in their products.

Kraft Heinz, which owns the popular line of Capri Sun drinks, has publicly shared its efforts to ramp up the nutritional value of its products.

The company has a goal to slash 60 million pounds of total sugar in Kraft Heinz products globally by 2025.

"As more people become aware of the harm that excessive sugar can cause in the body, my hope is that they continue to choose healthier alternatives," Fausel said.

Creating New Patterns

For children who consume sweetened juices and sodas regularly, the transition to healthier options might be challenging at first.

"Change can involve tantrums and unhappiness, and right now parents are at their max living pandemic parenting life," said Jennifer Anderson, a registered dietitian and CEO of Kids Eat in Color, LLC, a resource for improving child nutrition and health through innovative education, meal plans, and tools. "Kids can get used to having sugary drinks, and they don't want to give them up."

One way to help make the switch is by having only water and milk as options while children are up and about, a technique that works particularly well for younger children, she said.

"This sort of 'quiet restriction' helps kids learn to love the healthier option without feeling deprived," Anderson said. "They will eventually learn about juice, soda, chocolate milk, sports drinks, and more, but you can let them learn about those foods at a slower pace when you rarely or don't serve them at home."

The researchers reported no relevant financial relationships.

PLoS Med. Published online February 1, 2022. Full text

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