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(THE CONVERSATION) Walking down the drink aisle at any grocery store will take you past hundreds of drinks, from sodas to sports drinks. Children’s drink sections are filled with a vast array of products as well. Most parents want to buy what is healthy for their children, but with so many options in the drink aisle, it can be difficult to make the right choice – especially when drink companies make it hard to do so.
I am a researcher at the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and and Health, and I’ve studied how food is marketed to kids and parents of young children for more than a decade. Companies spend huge sums advertising children’s drinks with added sweeteners. Despite the sweeteners, companies market these drinks as healthy choices for kids.
In a recent study I co-authored with colleagues at the Rudd Center, we examined advertising and purchasing trends of children’s drinks from 2006 to 2017. We found, not surprisingly, that ad spending drove people to buy the drinks being advertised. The problem is that companies spend tens of millions of dollars per year promoting sweetened children’s drinks. This study was one of the first to directly tie that ad spending to household purchases of unhealthy beverages. In addition, we also found that households with lower incomes were more responsive to this advertising and purchased more sweetened children’s fruit drinks than households with higher incomes.
Decades of research has shown that drinking too many sugary drinks can raise the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay. Advertising appears to increase companies’ profits, but not children’s health.
Advertising and demographics
The food and beverage industry spends nearly US$14 billion per year advertising their products, and around 80% of the spending promotes highly processed foods. This includes “fruit drinks” – fruit-flavored beverages with not much juice, like SunnyD – and flavored waters like Capri Sun Roarin’ Waters. Both are marketed as being for children, but they contain ingredients health experts say kids should not consume, including added sugar, diet sweeteners or both.
In 2018, companies spent $21 million advertising these sweetened drinks across all media in the U.S. They spent $18.5 million of that promoting sweetened children’s drinks through TV ads. This was far more than the $13.6 million companies spent on TV ads for unsweetened children’s drinks like 100% juices and juice and water blends.
Marketing sugary drinks directly to young kids is another tactic that companies use.
In 2018, children 2 to 5 years old saw twice as many TV ads for sugary children’s drinks than they did for unsweetened juice products. Some fruit drink brands also disproportionately targeted advertising to Spanish-speaking households as well as Black children. Even packaging is aimed at kids, with sweetened drinks featuring more cartoons, brand characters and wacky names compared to drinks without added sweeteners.
This advertising can undermine parents’ efforts to serve healthy drinks.
To measure the effect of this advertising, my colleagues and …….