Warning Labels May Deter Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption

Dentistry Today


Young adults are less likely to buy sugar-sweetened beverages that include health labels, particularly those with graphic warnings about how added sugar can lead to tooth decay, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, according to Deakin University in Australia. Researchers there also say individuals are more likely to choose healthier options if there is a Health Star Rating, the front-of-pack labeling system used in Australia and New Zealand, on beverages. 

At least half of Americans and a third of Australians drink at least one sugar-sweetened drink each day, the researchers report. Their online choice experiment examined the drink choices of almost 1,000 Australians between the ages of 18 and 35. Participants were recruited using online platforms from four states in Australia and represented diverse socioeconomic statuses and education levels.

Participants were asked to imagine they were entering a shop or café or approaching a vending machine to buy a drink. They then were asked to choose one of 15 drinks, with sugary and non-sweetened options available. A control group featured drinks with no labels at all. In the other four study groups, sugary drinks featured a graphic warning, a text warning, or sugar information, while the sugary and non-sugary drinks alike featured a Health Star Rating. 

Alternatively, participants could select “no drink” if they no longer wanted to buy a drink. Overall, participants were far less likely to select a sugary drink when a front-of-pack label was displayed compared to no label, regardless of their level of education, age, and socioeconomic background.  

Graphic warning labels indicating that drinks with added sugar may contribute to tooth decay (including an image of decayed teeth), type 2 diabetes, or obesity appeared to have the greatest impact. Participants were 36% less likely to purchase sugary drinks that included a graphic warning compared to a drink with no label. 

Other front-of-pack labels also were effective, with participants 20% less likely to purchase sugary drinks that included the Health Star Rating or 18% less likely for a label displaying teaspoons of sugar. Also, participants were 20% more likely to choose healthier alternatives when Health Star Ratings were displayed compared to no label.

“Our findings highlight the potential of front-of-pack health labels, particularly graphic images and Health Star Ratings, to change consumer behavior, reduce purchases of sugar-sweetened drinks, and help people make healthier choices,” said Anna Peeters, PhD, director of the Institute for Healthcare Transformation at Deakin University. 

“The question now is what kind of impact these labels could have on the obesity epidemic. While no single measure will reverse the obesity crisis, given that the largest source of added sugars in our diet comes from sugar-sweetened drinks, there is a compelling case for the introduction of front-of-pack labels on sugary drinks worldwide,” said Peeters. 

The researchers noted that the study measured intended selections of drinks in an online setting and that the labels would need to be tested on real-world purchases of sugary drinks. They also said that it would be important to test drink labels with adolescents, as they are the highest consumers of sugary drinks in Australia. 

The study, “The Effect of Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Front-of-Pack Labels on Drink Selection, Health Knowledge and Awareness: An Online Randomised Controlled Trial,” was presented at the European Congress on Obesity, May 25, in Vienna, Austria.

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