Warning labels on sugary drinks similar to those found on tobacco products may be an important way to educate parents about the health harms of sugary drinks and may have a powerful effect on whether parents purchase them, according to new research from the University of Pennsylvania.
The study is the first of its kind to examine the influence of warning labels on sugary drinks.
When asked to make an in-the-moment hypothetical purchasing decision for their child, caregivers who saw sugary drinks with warning labels were significantly less likely to choose a sugary drink compared with those who saw no labels or calorie labels on beverages.
The online survey was completed by 2381 parents from a variety of backgrounds and were randomly assigned to one of six groups. The groups included a control, which saw no warning label on beverages; the ‘calorie label’ group which only saw a label displaying the beverage’s calorie count; and four ‘warning label’ groups, which saw one of four variations of content warning about sugary drinks contributing to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.
Significantly fewer parents chose a sugary drink for their child in the warning label condition (40%) versus the no label (60%) and calorie label conditions (53%).
Parents in the warning label condition also believed that sugary drinks were less healthy for their child, increased parents’ perceptions of the children’s risk of weight gain, heart disease and diabetes, and were less likely to intend to purchase them.
“In light of the childhood obesity epidemic and studies suggesting that more than half of children under the age of 11 drink SSBs (sugar-sweetened beverages) on a daily basis, there is a growing concern about the health effects associated with consumption of these beverages,” said lead author Christina Roberto, an assistant professor of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at Penn Medicine.
“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,” Roberto said. “The findings are in line with similar studies conducted on the effects of warning labels on tobacco products, which have been shown to increase consumer knowledge of health risks related to tobacco use, and encourage smoking cessation.
The study also evaluated consumer support for sugar-sweetened beverage warning labels and found that nearly 75% of participants would support adding them to the packaging.
Labelling strategies typically garner more public support than more controversial food policies such as taxing sugary drinks or limiting portion size and therefore should be seriously considered by the government in their forthcoming Childhood Obesity Strategy.
“We can now say that warning labels have the potential to educate parents and motivate behaviour change when it comes to purchasing SSBs.”