Warning labels on soft drinks may affect purchasing decisions of teens: study

By Mary Ellen Shoup contact

- Last updated on GMT

Although soda consumption among adolescents has decreased over the last 15 years, the consumption of other sugary beverages like sports and energy drinks has increased in recent years.
Although soda consumption among adolescents has decreased over the last 15 years, the consumption of other sugary beverages like sports and energy drinks has increased in recent years.

Related tags: Obesity, Nutrition

Teens are more than 15% less likely to purchase soft drinks or other sugary beverages that have warning labels, according to a new study by researchers from the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. 

The study polled 2,495 adolescents aged 12 to 15 years old “from diverse backgrounds”​. In the online survey, respondents were shown beverages with either no warning label, or one of

warninglabel
Examples of the warning messages adolescents were shown during the survey. 

five warning labels – one featuring calorie content, and four displaying a variation of the warning text.

The examples of warning labels used in the survey indicated that consumption of sugary drinks contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay, with slight variations in wording – such as emphasizing that these conditions are “preventable diseases”​ or clarifying that consuming sugary drinks contributes to type 2 diabetes.

'Need for nutrition information at the point of purchase'

Overall, 77% of participants who saw no warning label responded that they would select a sugary beverage in a hypothetical choice situation. Depending on the specific phrasing of the warning labels, participants were 8% to 16% less likely to select sugary drinks when health warning labels were present compared to no warning indication on the label.

“The influence of warning labels on the purchasing intentions of teenagers in this study highlights the need for nutrition information at the point of purchase to help people make healthier choices,”​ co-author Eric M. VanEpps, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the Perelman School of Medicine said.

While the study shows that warning labels can have an effect on the purchasing intentions of teenagers, more research still needs to be done to see if the findings hold true “in more typical purchasing environments,” ​VanEpps added.

Minimizing damaging health conditions

Including warning labels on soft drinks and other sugary beverages, could lead to a large positive impact on the overall health of this young demographic, the study suggested.

In 2012, approximately 20.5% of US children aged 12 to 19 years old were considered overweight or obese, with the highest prevalence among Hispanics (22.4%) and non-Hispanic blacks (20.2%) compared to non-Hispanic whites, according to the Center for Disease Control.

 “The average teen in the US consumes at least one sugar-sweetened beverage every day, which could account for more than twice the recommended daily serving of sugar,”​ lead author Christina Roberto, PhD, an assistant professor of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine said.

 “The rate of sugar consumption in the US is astounding and contributes significantly to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other dangerous and costly health conditions.”

Sugar warning labels spread throughout the US

Legislative bills introduced in California, New York, Vermont, Hawaii, and Washington would require health-related warning labels to be displayed on individual beverage packaging.

Similarly, San Francisco passed a law in 2015, still yet to be implemented, requiring sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) advertisements to include a warning label that informs consumers of the potential health harms associated with drinking sugary beverages. An ordinance was also introduced in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, that would require health-related warnings on certain SSB advertisements, menus, and signs in locations where SSBs are sold.

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