Businesses put pressure on children with sweetened ads and misleading labels – and families buy

Fran Fleming-Milici, University of Connecticut

Walking down the beverage corridor of every Grocery Store will take you past hundreds of drinks from soft drinks to sports drinks. The children’s beverage compartments are also full of a wide range of products. Most parents want to buy healthy for their children, but because there are so many options in the drinking corridor, making the right choice can be difficult – especially when beverage companies make it difficult.

I am a researcher at the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health and have been researching how food is marketed to children and parents of young children for over a decade. Companies are spending huge sums to promote children’s drinks with added sweeteners. Despite the sweeteners, companies market these drinks as healthy choices for children.

In a recent study I did with colleagues at the Rudd Center, we looked at advertising and buying trends for children’s beverages from 2006 to 2017. Not surprisingly, the spending spent on advertising made people buy the drinks advertised. The problem is that companies spend tens of millions of dollars a year to advertise sweetened children’s drinks. This study was one of the first to link advertising spending directly to the purchase of unhealthy beverages by households. In addition, we also found that lower-income households responded better to this advertising and bought more sweetened children’s fruit drinks than high-income households.

Decades of research have shown that drinking excessive sugary drinks can increase your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay. Advertising seems to increase corporate profits, but not children’s health.

Many beverage ads are aimed at children.

Advertising and Demographics

The food and beverage industry spends nearly $ 14 billion annually on advertising its products, and about 80% of spending goes to promoting highly processed foods. This includes “fruit drinks” – fruit-flavored drinks that are not high in juice, such as SunnyD – and flavored waters such as Capri Sun Roarin ‘Waters. Both are marketed for children, but they contain ingredients that health experts say children should not drink, including added sugar, dietary sweeteners, or both.

In 2018, companies spent $ 21 million advertising these sweetened drinks on all media in the United States. Of that, $ 18.5 million was advertised for children’s sweetened beverages through TV commercials. This was far more than the $ 13.6 million companies that spent on TV commercials for unsweetened children’s drinks, such as 100 percent juices and juice and water blends.

Marketing sugar drinks directly to young children is another tactic companies use.

In 2018, children aged 2 to 5 saw twice as many TV commercials for sugary children’s drinks as for unsweetened juice products. Some fruit drink brands also target advertising disproportionately to Spanish-speaking households as well as black children. The packaging is also aimed at children, sweetened drinks have more cartoons, characters and funny names compared to drinks without added sweeteners.

This advertising can undermine parents ’efforts to provide healthy drinks.

To measure the impact of this advertising, my colleague and I looked at 12-year monthly purchase data. We found that those living in low-income households bought significantly more sweetened fruit drinks and less unsweetened juices than people in high-income households. People in non-Hispanic black and Hispanic households also bought more sweetened fruit drinks than non-Hispanic white households. This is consistent with research showing that colorful and lower-income communities drink relatively more sugary beverages than other groups, increasing differences in diet-related diseases.

A chart showing large price increases for unsweetened juices and flavored waters, but only small increases for fruit drinks.

Prices of all children’s drinks increased during the IP, but sweetened fruit drinks such as SunnyD experienced by far the smallest price increase.

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

Lower prices

Advertising is a driver of consumption, but pricing strategies also increase demographic differences in purchases.

I have led target groups with parents of young children and they say they want to buy 100% juice. But when these parents compare prices at the supermarket, they end up buying cheaper sweetened drinks instead of the healthier drinks they were going to buy.

Recent research shows that such price differentials are worsening. Over the 12 years we have seen, prices rose for all types of children’s drinks, but sweetened children’s fruit drinks rose by only 1 cent an ounce on average compared to 4 cents an ounce for unsweetened juice products.

What to do?

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

Reducing the amount of sweetened drinks that children drink at an early age can help keep them healthy for life. Better self-regulation in the advertising sector is one way to reduce this excessive consumption, but the US Food and Drug Administration could also intervene by forcing clear and consistent added sugars and dietary sweeteners and juice percentages to be indicated on packaging. Reducing disproportionately targeted marketing of sugary drinks to colored communities would also be a step in the right direction.

If you care about children’s health, the goal should be to make a healthy choice an easy choice. Unfortunately, our research seems to point in the opposite direction.Discourse

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

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

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