Parents see many sugary drinks as healthy

March 17, 2015

Most parents know that soda isn’t good for their children, but many perceive other drinks with a lot of added sugar-fruit drinks, sports drinks, and flavored water, in particular-as healthy, a new study reports.

Most parents know that soda isn’t good for their children, but many perceive other drinks with a lot of added sugar-fruit drinks (excluding 100% fruit juice), sports drinks, and flavored water, in particular-as healthy, a new study reports. The study also found that ingredient claims on beverage packaging significantly affect buying decisions for many parents.

The online survey of 982 parents of children aged between 2 and 7 years-80% female, 72% some college education, 46% nonwhite or Hispanic-found that 96% of them had provided sugary drinks for their children in the previous month. They most often supplied fruit drinks (77%) and nondiet soda (62%), followed by sports drinks (51%), sweetened iced tea (42%), and flavored water (39%).

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Parents considered flavored water, fruit drinks, and sports drinks the healthiest categories. Fewer than 10% regarded regular soda, diet soda, or energy drinks as healthy. Parents of very young children were less likely than parents of older children or adolescents to rate all categories of sugary drinks, except fruit drinks, as healthy.

Parents who bought a specific product in any category considered that product healthier than parents who didn’t buy it. They also tended to rate specific brands within a category as healthier than the category as a whole.

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At least a third of parents said that ingredient claims on beverage packaging are a somewhat or very important influence on their decision to buy a sugary drink and that they look specifically for claims such as low calories, vitamin C, antioxidants, and “real” or “natural.” The researchers note that such claims appear most often on packaging in the beverage categories that parents think of as most healthy (fruit drinks, sports drinks, and flavored water).

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More than half of parents said they were concerned about caffeine, sugar, and artificial sweeteners in sugary drinks-two-thirds worried about caffeine and 55% to 59% about artificial sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup, and sugar. Worry about artificial sweeteners is inconsistent with the fact that many parents give their children fruit drinks with these sweeteners, the researchers observe, suggesting that parents may not realize that the drinks contain the sweeteners and need “more transparent reporting of ingredients” to make informed decisions.

The study findings highlight the need to pay more attention to ingredient claims and other marketing messages on beverage packages that may “mislead parents to believe that some sugary drinks are healthful options for their children,” the researchers conclude. Understanding parental misperceptions-especially about fruit drinks, sports drinks, and flavored waters-can help healthcare professionals better inform parents about reducing sugar consumption by choosing healthier drinks, they emphasize.