Graphic Labels on Sugary Drinks Can Cut Consumption

All of us are trying to eat better and stick to healthy patterns. The problem is, it’s easy to forget, fall into old routines and reach for the things that sound delicious. Moreover, attractive food labels can have you reaching to grab products off the shelf. And, when you read the labels, it can be hard to determine if something is good for you.

Sugar-heavy drinks will use words like “natural,” “fortified” and “good source of vitamin C” on the front of the label. You might stay away from soda but still reach for something unhealthy because the packaging made it sound virtuous. A new study aimed to see if adding warning labels with graphic pictures would deter people, especially parents, from buying them.

Researchers made a fake convenience store. They filled it with everything from eggs and milk to toiletries and dishwashing powder. They also made labels for sugary drinks with graphic images of health problems caused by sugar. The labels included pictures of diseased organs and warnings of excess consumption of sugary drinks. They had two groups of parents shop in the store.

They gave the parents a shopping list and included the instruction to buy a snack and a drink for their child. One group of parents saw regular labels; the other group saw the products with the warning labels. When the drinks in the store had the warning labels, parents were 17 percent less likely to buy a sugar-heavy beverage.  

Seventeen percentage points is a pretty big reduction,” said Prof. Lindsey Smith Taillie of the Univ. of North Carolina. She specializes in food policy to prevent chronic diseases. “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.”

While 45 percent of parents seeing the standard labels bought a sugary drink, only 28 percent of the parents who saw the warning labels did. In a survey after the study, the parents who saw the warning labels reacted positively. They said that they felt the labels were an effective reminder, and it made them feel “in control” of the decision. That’s always important. It’s not about trying to take away people’s options; it’s about giving people all the information, so they get to make their own informed choice. Seven countries have laws requiring warning labels for high levels of sugar, sodium and unsaturated fat.

We created this store because we saw a major need for research that tests the impact of policies in a food store setting that is much more realistic,” said Prof. Smith Taillie. “When people make choices about what food to buy, they are juggling dozens of factors like taste, cost and advertising and are looking at many products at once. Showing that warnings can cut through the noise of everything else that’s happening in a food store is powerful evidence that they would help reduce sugary drink purchases in the real world.”

This research could influence future laws about labels. Clear warning labels are an excellent tool to help people make decisions. If you want to have a sugary drink and plan to enjoy it as a treat, you should absolutely be able to do that. But, you should also be presented with all of the information so that you get to make that choice and aren’t tricked into thinking it’s a healthy choice for you or a child in your life.  

Banner image: Shayna Douglas via Unsplash

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