A study conducted by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity demonstrates parents’ vulnerability to the marketing of sugary drinks as a potentially healthier alternative to soda.
Participants completed a survey in 2011 that examined their purchasing habits and perception of sugary drinks such as soda, fruit beverages, sweetened iced tea and flavored water. The study examined the responses of just under 1000 ethnically diverse participants, each with at least one child aged 2 to 17.
The results displayed some intriguing trends. Eighty percent of parents with preschoolers purchased fruit drinks for their children, while only forty percent of the same demographic reported purchasing regular soda. Parents were also more likely to rate specific brands of fruit drinks as healthy. For example, 30 percent of parents rated the overall category of fruit drinks as healthy, while 36 percent and 43 percent rated Capri Sun and Sunny D as a healthy beverage, respectively. Vitamin water and sports drinks garnered similar results.
“In the abstract, parents understand that beverages with added sugar such as fruit drinks aren’t healthy,” Jennifer Harris, study author and UConn associate professor said. “But when the companies market their drinks to imply their products are a healthier choice in some aspect, the message fails to get through.”
The study shed light on product packaging’s impact on perceived healthfulness of sugary drinks. When surveyed on the impact of nutritional claims, more than one third of parents reported that claims such as low-calorie, real/natural, high vitamin C content and abundant antioxidants were important factors when deciding which sugary drinks to buy for their children. Parents were also more likely to rank caffeine and artificial sweeteners as a greater nutritional concern than sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
Harris commented on purchasing trends in the near future. “We’re seeing consumption of regular and diet soda going down. Fruit drinks too. But sport and energy drinks are going up. Sweetened iced tea such as Snapple is going up. That’s where the focus needs to be.”
The study concluded that understanding parents’ misconceptions about sugary drinks as well as how they interpret nutritional claims can help shape effective public health campaigns to reduce sugary drink consumption.
For concerned parents, Harris offered some advice. “It’s pretty simple. If added sugar is one of the first or second ingredients listed for a drink, then it’s not healthy.”