Only 40% of parents asked to select a drink for their child chose a sugar-sweetened beverage when the label included a safety warning that drinking beverages with added sugar contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay, according to a study published Jan. 15 in Pediatrics. Comparatively, 60% chose such drinks when the warning was not on the label.
The study, which included 2,381 parents who took an online survey, also found parents perceived the beverages with the warning as less healthy and expressed less intent in purchasing them in the future than the drinks without the warning.
Notably, labels that boldly called out calories in beverages but did not have the safety warning also reduced the number of parents who selected sugary drinks, but to a lesser extent. Of the parents presented drinks labeled with calories and not the safety warning, 53% chose sugary drinks.
This suggests “current efforts to place calories per bottle information may have little influence” on beverage selection, likely because consumers do not as clearly make a connection between calories and health impact, hypothesize the researchers led by Christina Roberto from the University of Pennsylvania.
Warning labels, on the other hand, “may be an important way to educate parents about the health harms” of sugary drinks, according to the study.
Pending legislation likely supported by parents
The finding lends support to legislation proposed in California and New York that would require health warnings on some sugary drinks, similar to the warning labels on tobacco products.
The proposed warning in California legislation served as the basis for the warning variations tested in the current study, as did the criteria for when the warning would apply.
According to the proposed California criteria, a safety warning that “drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay,” would appear on any sweetened nonalcoholic beverages with added sweeteners that contain 75 or more calories per 12 fluid ounces.
Beverages with 100% natural juice and no added caloric sweeteners, liquid products used as dietary aids, such as oral nutrition therapy, or as a source of necessary nutrition, including infant formula and milk, are excluded having the warning, according to the legislation.
The study also reassures industry that the presence of warnings on some sugary-sweetened drinks would not “spillover” on to beverages that did not have the warning.
Bipartisan support for warnings
The study also revealed overwhelming bipartisan support for legislation to require such safety warnings.
Overall, the study found 73.3% of participants were in favor of the warning label policies and only 5.7% opposed it.
“Although Republicans (72.9%) and Independents (66%) favored the policy less than Democrats (79.2%), the policy had strong majority support among all three parties,” the study said.