Reading And Taking Note Of Graphic Labels On High-Sugar Drinks Help Fight Childhood Obesity

Business World

Many parents have claimed how warning labels were effective when it came to reminding them not to feed their little ones sugary drinks. Knowing what’s in it helped them feel “in control” in terms of making healthy eating choices.

The question now is: can these strong warnings that come with images such as the ones you see on cigarettes be an effective deterrent when it comes to sugary drinks? Research that has been published in the journal PLoS One says that it can significantly work.

The scientists from the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill arranged some of the sugary drinks affixed with warning labels. They made sure that these looked like the ones you see on cigarette boxes that warned its users of general health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, and anything related to taking in too much sugar. They discovered that parents were 17 percent less likely to buy the drinks for their little ones.

“Seventeen percentage points is a pretty big reduction. It’s hard for parents to know if what they’re buying is healthy or not because these products are covered in nutritional claims that are misleading. We found these warning labels helped to cut through that noise and let people know quickly and easily that this isn’t a healthy drink,” shared senior author of the study, Lindsey Smith Taillie, PhD, a UNC assistant professor whose specialty is in food policy to help prevent chronic diseases.


Researchers Created a Market-Like Lab Environment

In order to pull off the study, the research team created a “mini-mart” laboratory. To do this, they stocked the room with everything that was present in a typical convenience store such as milk, eggs, toiletries, and energy drinks. They also made front-of-package labels for the sugary drinks. What set these labels apart from the conventional one was that this had graphic images of heart disease and type 2 diabetes on it.

They invited around 325 parents with kids aged 2 to 12. They were recruited in March 2021, but were priorly asked to fill out questionnaires. They discovered that their children had consumed at least one sugary drink each week. The researchers had given the parents a task, and that is to buy one drink and one snack. They were also asked to get a household item in order to hide the true purpose of the study. The parents were divided into two groups: a control arm that shopped for sugary drinks with “neutral” barcodes on labels, and a study arm that were exposed to the newly designed labels.

They discovered that the glaring and unpleasant photos with the warnings stopped parents from choosing the sugary drinks. On the other hand, 45 percent of parents who just saw barcodes got soda or sugar-sweetened juice, and only 28 percent of parents who were exposed to the warning labels bought the sugary drink.

A post-shopping survey was then conducted. The parents who participated shared how the warning labels were effective in terms of reminding them not to feed their kids sugary drinks. That also made them feel more “in control” when it comes to making healthy eating decisions. They concluded that the warning labels were effective. Race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status didn’t play a part in their decision-making status.

“We think the paper could be useful for policy makers in the U.S. and globally,” said Marissa Hall, PhD, a UNC assistant professor in the Gillings Department of Health Behavior. She was also the lead author of the study. Hall also notes that since 2011, several U.S. states such as California, Vermont, Washington, Hawaii, New York, and Maryland, have already proposed legislation that mandated sugary drinks to contain warnings on labels, packaging, advertisements, or at the point of sale.

Globally, seven countries, including Chile, Mexico, and South Africa, have already passed laws mandating “high in added sugar” warnings on products, along with warnings for sodium levels and unsaturated fats.

“What’s really clear is that sugary drinks are uniquely harmful. They provide no nutrition, they’re one of the biggest sources of added sugars, and the other problem is they’re heavily marketed to children and parents. When you’re thinking about where to start in improving nutrition, removing sugary drinks from a child’s diet is a logical place to start,” says Marlene Schwartz, PhD, the director of the Rudd Center for Obesity and Food Policy at the University of Connecticut in Hartford.


Confusion Around Current Labeling and the Health Claims that Go with It

At this point in time, labels found on sugary drinks are actually confusing. Many contain health claims and buzzwords such as “natural,” “fortified,” or “a great source of vitamin C,” Hall said.

“The research on warning labels is encouraging. When you have a clear message, particularly with images that are pretty shocking, that gets people’s attention and it can make a difference in their behavior,” Dr. Schwartz said.

The World Health Organization has made recommendations about the issue. They say that children need to limit added sugar intake to less than 10 percent of total calorie. The American Heart Association, on the other hand, say that kids 2 years old or above need to consume less than 25 grams (6.25 teaspoonof added sugar per day. They also should have 8 ounces or less of sugary drinks each week. Despite all the new information shared and recommendations made, U.S. kids and adolescents have been taking 17 percent of their daily calories from added sugars. Half of what they consume are from sugary drinks. AHA even gave an example and said that 12 ounce can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar.


Signs That a Sugar Tax Can Work

In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association had created a set of policy recommendations. These covered topics on taxing sugary drinks. They said that these were a “grave health threat to children and adolescents.”

Dr. Natalie Muth, MD, MPH, is a California-based pediatrician who also was the first author of the joint statement. Her stance on a sugar tax and warning labels on sugary drinks would work well with helping consumers make smarter choices. Dr. Muth said, “These strategies absolutely can and should work in tandem to help lower sugar drink consumption.”

She says Berkeley, California, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, are the “best examples” of jurisdictions that have made the proper implementation on a sugar tax. They have seen a growing number of pieces of evidence that the policy has worked well for them.

Berkeley is the first U.S. municipality to pass an excise tax on sugary drinks. This happened in November 2014. The tax says that consumers pay a one-cent-per-ounce tax on drinks with added sugars. Included on the list are sodas, energy drinks, and coffee. The excise tax has been around for three years, and so far, they have seen a 52 percent cut in serving. A research on this has been published in the American Journal of Public Health in April 2019. They also saw an increase in water consumption by 29 percent in the three years this happened.

Lynn Silver, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician in Berkeley, California. She’s also a senior adviser at the Public Health Institute. She said that multiple “creative” policies need to be made and implemented in order to change the health of the people and improve it.

“There is no single silver bullet to address the epidemic of diabetes and obesity. It’s going to take multiple policies and changes in the environment to really turn this around,” she said. While the policy has to be fully implemented in all cities, the experts advise adults to consider what they’re putting inside the cart every single time they go to the grocery.

“The takeaway is to encourage children to drink water, milk, and other beverages that do not contain any added sugar,” Dr. Muth added.