Both Researchers and the Public Think Warning Labels on Soda Will Work

A new study finds parents are significantly less likely to buy sugary drinks for their kids when they carry a health label.
(Photo: Digital Vision/Getty Images)
Jan 14, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Just one day after a statewide poll found a staggering majority of California residents support mandatory warning labels on sugar-sweetened beverages, the results of a new study suggest that those Californians may be on to something: In short, the labels seem to work.

A bill that would have required beverages that contain more than 75 calories' worth of added sugar per 12 ounces to carry a health warning label stalled in the California legislature last year, yet the new Field Poll found 78 percent of California voters support such labeling. Their backing would appear to be supported by science. In a study published Wednesday by the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that parents who saw a label warning that drinking beverages with added sugar contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay were 20 percent less likely to say that they would purchase such beverages for their kids compared with those who saw no label.

The study—which was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and conducted by public health researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada—used an online survey to present 2,300 parents with a scenario in which they were selecting among 20 popular beverages at a vending machine to purchase for their child, with more than half the choices containing added sugar. Participants were divided into six groups: One group saw no warning label, another saw just a label that disclosed the number of calories (like those displayed on most sugary beverages), and the other four groups saw some variation of the label that has been proposed in California, which reads, “SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”

The parents who saw one of the four warning labels were significantly less likely to say they would buy a sugary beverage for their kids than those who saw no label, and they were also less likely to say so when compared with those parents who simply saw the calorie label—results that would seem a pointed rebuke to the beverage industry, which has long claimed that disclosing total calories along with ingredients should be sufficient for consumers.

Even more damning were the results of the follow-up questions that study participants were asked. As the authors note, “Warning labels led parents to believe that [sugar-sweetened beverages] were significantly less healthy, less likely to make their child feel energized, less likely to help their child to focus, and more likely to increase their child’s risk of weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes.”

As with the California poll, the study found nationwide support for mandatory labeling, with a substantial majority of participants—more than 73 percent—in favor of such labeling.

Yet as we’ve seen all too often, an overwhelming majority of Americans across party lines may support more transparent labeling, but don’t expect the industry to bow to the will of the people anytime soon.

Just as any number of food makers remain adamant in their opposition to mandatory labeling of products made with GMOs—in spite of the 90 percent of Americans who say they want such labeling—the beverage industry appears to be digging in its heels. Responding to the results of the California poll, Bob Achermann, executive director of the industry group CalBev, simply echoed the industry’s tired talking points in a statement: “The best way to promote balanced lifestyles is through fact-based information rather simplistic approaches that target just one product but don’t ultimately address complex health challenges.”