Tobacco products contain health warning labels to deter consumers from buying them; could the same tactic work for sugar-sweetened beverages? A new study examines the effectiveness of such labels on deterring parents from buying sugary drinks for their children.

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Over half of children under 11 years of age drink sugar-sweetened drinks daily; researchers are hoping warning labels could decrease that percentage.

Although kids are consuming less added sugar today than they were in 2000, they are still taking in much more sugar than is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, putting them at risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.

Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania wanted to examine whether warning labels on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) would have an effect on parents and whether they would be less likely to purchase them.

“Some states have introduced bills requiring SSBs to display health warning labels,” says lead author Christina Roberto, PhD, “but to date, there is little data to suggest how labels might influence purchasing habits, or which labels may be the most impactful.”

She adds that because over half of children under 11 years of age drink SSBs daily, “there is a growing concern about the health effects associated with consumption of these beverages.”

Previous studies have shown that many SSBs marketed for children contain up to 7 tsp of sugar per 6.5 oz, which is twice the recommended daily serving of sugar for children.

According to the researchers, certain types of SSBs – such as flavored waters and fruit or sports drinks – may need warning labels because many parents believe they are healthy options for their kids.

To conduct their study – which is published in the journal Pediatrics – the researchers carried out an online survey of 2,381 parents with at least one child between 6-11 years of age.

The parents were from diverse backgrounds; many of them identified as racial and ethnic minorities, which are groups with the highest obesity rates in the US.

Participants were divided into six groups: a control group, which did not see a warning label on beverages; a calorie label group, which saw a label that only displayed the beverage’s calorie count; and four warning label groups, which saw one of four variations of warning labels that cautioned about possible negative health effects.

Next, the researchers asked the participants to choose a beverage for their child.

Although the specific text of the health warning labels did not affect the parents’ purchase choices, the researchers say the presence of the label did have a meaningful effect.

Results revealed that 40% of parents in the health warning label groups said they would choose an SSB for their kids, whereas 60% of participants who did not see labels on the beverages said they would.

Additionally, 53% of parents who saw the calorie labels said they would choose an SSB.

Roberto says their findings are similar to those from studies that examined the effects of tobacco warning labels, which have been shown to encourage smoking cessation.

“Regardless of the specific wording,” she says, “results show that adding health warning labels to SSBs may be an important and impactful way to educate parents about the potential health risks associated with regular consumption of these beverages, and encourage them to make fewer of these purchases.”

These findings are timely, as last week, the US Department of Agriculture issued new dietary guidelines that recommended limiting sugar to 10% or less of daily calories.

After evaluating consumer support for SSB warning labels, the team also found that around 75% of the study participants support adding them to beverages.

The team hopes that in light of their results, future research will focus on how labels influence choice for consumers.

Roberto adds:

”We can now say that warning labels have the potential to educate parents and motivate behavior change when it comes to purchasing SSBs, which could help gain support for bills requiring labels to be added to beverage containers, but there are also many unanswered questions that require further study.”

Earlier this week, Medical News Today reported on a study that concluded sugary drinks increase harmful body fat, putting consumers at increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.