Companies Are Pushing Sweetened Drinks to Children Through Advertising and Misleading Labels – and Families Are Buying

Prices for all children’s drinks increased over the study period, but sweetened ‘fruit drinks’ like SunnyD saw by far the smallest price increase.

Choi, Andreyeva, Fleming-Milici & Harris, 2021, CC BY-ND

Lower prices

Advertising is one thing that drives consumption, but pricing strategies also add to demographic differences in purchases.

I’ve conducted focus groups with parents of young children, and they say they’d like to purchase 100% juice. But when these parents compare prices in the supermarket, they end up buying cheaper sweetened drinks instead of the healthier beverages they intended to buy.

The recent study shows that such price disparities are getting worse. Over the 12 years we covered, prices increased for all children’s drink types, but sweetened children’s fruit drinks increased by an average of just 1 cent per ounce, compared to the 4 cents-per-ounce increase of unsweetened juice products.

Misleading labels

Another way companies try to push sweetened drinks is to use labels that make them appear healthier than they really are.

This happens in two main ways. First, sweetened drink labels often highlight nutrition-related claims – like “Vitamin C” or “Less sugar,” for example. Second, these drinks often use pictures of fruit or words with no regulatory definitions – like “water” and “natural.” Taken together, these tactics mask ingredients such as added sugars and diet sweeteners and convey the idea that these drinks are healthy choices, which likely contribute to sales.

Brands also often offer both sweetened and unsweetened drinks with nearly identical packaging and claims, so it is easy to see why parents misperceive what is in these drinks. I challenge any reader to head down a children’s drink aisle in the supermarket and successfully separate the healthier drinks from the less healthy ones.

[Understand new developments in science, health and technology, each week. Subscribe to The Conversation’s science newsletter.]

What to do?

Between the marketing, pricing and labels, it’s no wonder kids are drinking more sugary drinks. Overall, our research found that purchases of sweetened flavored waters increased by 68% from 2006 to 2017. Today, households with young children purchase three times as many ounces of sweetened fruit drinks as unsweetened juice.

Reducing the amount of sweetened drinks kids consume when they are young could go a long way in keeping them healthy for a lifetime. Better industry self-regulation of advertising is one way to reduce this overconsumption, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could also get involved by mandating clear and consistent disclosures of added sugars and diet sweeteners, as well as juice percentages, on packaging. Reducing disproportionate targeted marketing of sugary drinks to communities of color would be a step in the right direction, too.

If you care about the health of children, the goal should be to make the healthy choice the easy choice. Unfortunately, our research seems to show a trend in the opposite direction.

Fran Fleming-Milici, Director of Marketing Initiatives, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health, University of Connecticut

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.