PhotoFood nutrition labels contain a lot of useful information, but not everyone pays attention. What if there were a warning label alerting consumers that the food contained ingredients deemed to be unhealthy? Would that make a difference?

Researchers supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Healthy Eating Research Program conducted a study to find out. In particular, they tested warning labels about added sugars, since some states and municipalities are considering laws requiring warning labels on sugar-sweetened abstract beverages (SSB).

The study tested whether parents would change their purchase habits if the product contained a warning label. It also tested the wording of potential labels to determine which was most effective.

Warning labels

The four labels, which are similar, contained the following wording:

  • Safety Warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar[s] contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay
  • Safety Warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar[s] contributes to weight gain, diabetes, and tooth decay
  • Safety Warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar[s] contributes to preventable diseases like obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay
  • Safety Warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar[s] contributes to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay

To test the labels, hundreds of parents were asked to shop for beverages. Some beverages had no warning label, some only listed the calories, and the rest contained one of the four warning labels.

The researchers say the warning labels proved effective.

“Significantly fewer parents chose an SSB for their child in the warning label condition (40%) versus the no label (60%) and calorie label conditions (53%),” the authors write. “Parents in the warning label condition also chose significantly fewer SSB coupons, believed that SSBs were less healthy for their child, and were less likely to intend to purchase SSBs.”

Daily diet of SSBs

The study is part of a campaign to reduce children's consumption of SSBs. The authors cite surveys showing 66% of children two to 11 years old drink SSBs daily. One study estimated that these beverages contribute 69 calories daily to the diets of two to five year-olds and 118 calories daily to the diets of children six to 11 years old.

They also cite research they say has linked children’s consumption of SSBs with weight gain and risk of obesity in adulthood, as well as dental cavities.

Added sugars appear to be the next battleground between the food industry and health activists, who most recently targeted sodium content. The American Heart Association says many people consume more sugar than they realize. It says sugar is tempting to the taste buds, but the human body doesn't need it.

“Added sugars contribute zero nutrients but many added calories that can lead to extra pounds or even obesity, thereby reducing heart health,” the group warns.

Will you start seeing warning labels about added sugar? You might. Legislative bills have been introduced in California and New York State which would require SSBs to display health warning labels on product containers, much like tobacco warning labels.


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