Fruit drinks and flavored waters that include added sugars or low-calorie sweeteners dominated sales of drinks intended for children in 2018, making up 62% of the $2.2 billion in total children’s drink sales, according to a report by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut.
In 2018, companies spent $20.7 million to advertise children’s drinks with added sugars, primarily targeting children under the age of 12, according to researchers at the Rudd Center. Also, children between the ages of 2 and 11 saw more than twice as many TV ads for children’s sweetened drinks than for children’s drinks without sweeteners.
The center’s report follows a consensus statement released in September by health and nutrition experts recommending that children under the age of 5 should not consume any drinks with added sugars or low-calorie sweeteners and that they should consume limited amounts of 100% juice.
But common nutrition-related claims and images of fruit on packages of sugary fruit drinks and flavored waters make it difficult for parents to easily identify healthier drinks for their children, according to the researchers.
“Beverage companies have said they want to be part of the solution to childhood obesity, but they continue to market sugar-sweetened children’s drinks directly to young children on TV and through packages designed to get their attention in the store,” said Jennifer L. Harris, lead author and director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center.
“Parents may be surprised to know that pediatricians, dentists, and other nutrition experts recommend against serving any of these drinks to children,” Harris said.
The researchers assessed the top-selling brands of children’s drinks, including 34 sweetened drinks (fruit drinks, flavored waters, and drink mixes) and 33 drinks without added sweeteners (100% juice, juice-water blends, and one sparkling water). They also analyzed sales, advertising spending, children’s exposure to TV advertising, nutritional content, and product packaging. Brands with at least $10 million in sales in 2018 were included.
Some companies have developed drinks that may be healthier for children, such as juice and water blends that do not contain added sweeteners, and these companies have begun to advertise them to parents and children, the researchers said. But those healthier drinks, such as 100% juice, represented just 38% of children’s drink sales in 2018.
The researchers also said that package claims on sweetened children’s drinks, and similarities between claims on sweetened and unsweetened drinks, can confuse parents about their nutritional content.
Sugar-sweetened children’s fruit drinks typically included just 5% juice or less, but 80% of those packages included images of fruit, and 60% claimed to have “less” or “low” sugar or “no high fructose corn syrup,” the researchers said. Also, children’s drinks with and without added sweeteners also had similar package sizes and types, flavor names, fruit imagery, and front-of-package claims for products.
“You shouldn’t have to be a nutritionist to figure out whether or not a product is healthy for your child,” said Maria Romo-Palafox, study author and assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University.
In addition, low-calorie sweeteners such as sucralose and stevia were found in 74% of children’s sweetened drinks, including drinks that also included added sugars, but there was no mention of low-calorie sweeteners on the front of packages.
“The fronts of the packages make children’s drinks look healthy, but there’s no way to know which ones have added sugars or low-calorie sweeteners reading the front. You have to read the nutrition facts panel on the back and you have to know the names of low-calorie sweeteners, such as acesulfame potassium and sucralose, to realize they are in the product,” said Romo-Palafox.
The researchers said that the voluntary industry Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative self-regulatory program should establish nutrition standards that conform with health expert recommendations. Specifically, drinks with added sugars or low-calorie sweeteners should not be advertised directly to children.
Also, they said, beverage manufacturers should clearly indicate that products include added sugars and low-calorie sweeteners and the percent of juice content on the front of children’s drink packages.
Further, the US Food and Drug Administration could require products with nutrition-related claims on packages to meet minimum nutrition standards and prohibit the use of fruit and vegetable images on drink product packages that contain little or no juice.
Additionally within the options available to legislators, the researchers said, state and local taxes on sugary drinks should include children’s fruit drinks and flavored waters to raise the price and discourage purchases. Yet the researchers also note that beverage manufacturers made some progress in developing and advertising healthier drinks for children. For example:
- More companies sold unsweetened juice-water blends, which are healthier than sweetened children’s drinks and include only juice and water. Most have less than 50 calories in one box or pouch.
- With the exception of one sugar-sweetened children’s fruit drink, licensed characters only appeared on children’s drinks without added sweeteners (primarily 100% juice), which the researchers called a significant improvement compared to 2014.
- Kraft Heinz was the only company to advertise sugar-sweetened drinks directly to children on children’s TV, including Kool Aid Jammers and Capri Sun Roarin’ Waters.
However, the researchers said, companies continued to extensively promote sweetened children’s drinks, and many children’s drinks were high in sugar despite healthy-sounding claims.
- One-third of all children’s fruit drinks included 16 grams or more of sugar per serving, or the equivalent of 4 teaspoons, which is more than half of the maximum amount of added sugars that experts recommend for children per day.
- Of the 100% juice children’s drinks studied, only four of 13 came in appropriately sized boxes or pouches for a toddler (age 1 to 3 years). Some contained more than 6 ounces of juice, which is the maximum recommended daily amount for preschoolers (age 4 to 6 years).