Published December 11, 2013
Many Americans don't know how much and what kinds of sugar are in their beverages, according to a new study. But people who are concerned about sugar tend to be better at avoiding it, researchers found.
The confusion is understandable. Regular soft drinks and many fruit juice beverages and sports drinks are sweetened with added sugars such as sucrose or high fructose corn syrup, while 100-percent fruit juices only contain natural sugars. Milk has natural sugar too, even though it isn't sweet. Diet soft drinks may taste sweet, but they don't contain any sugar.
"Some dietary recommendations call out 'sugary' beverages," lead researcher Gail Rampersaud told Reuters Health in an email. "We wanted to see how consumers were interpreting that term and whether they had a good understanding of the types of sugars or other sweeteners in commonly consumed beverages."
Rampersaud studies nutrition and education at the University of Florida in Gainesville's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
She said the new study was originally designed to see how consumers interpret drink labels.
Rampersaud and her colleagues surveyed 3,361 U.S. adults through an online questionnaire. They asked participants about their diets including non-alcoholic beverage consumption and quizzed them on types and amounts of sugar found in various beverages. They also asked about use of food labels and general nutrition and health knowledge.
People in the study reported drinking the most water - more than four cups every day, on average. They drank about two and a half cups per day of "other beverages" such as coffee and tea.
Further down the list were sugar-sweetened beverages, milk, diet drinks and 100-percent fruit juice and blends.
Most people - 96 percent - identified regular soft drinks as sugary. But only three quarters of them knew soft drinks contain added sugar, according to findings published in Nutrition Research.
Over half of participants referred to fruit drinks, fruit cocktails and sports drinks as sugary. About 60 percent correctly reported that fruit drinks and sports drinks contain added sugar, and half knew cranberry juice cocktail contains added sugar.
It's possible many people use the word "sugary" to mean sweet, regardless of the type of sweetener used. Forty-five percent of people identified diet soft drinks as sugary and only one quarter were sure diet drinks are sugar-free.
Another 40 percent called 100-percent fruit juices sugary. Those juices only contain natural sugars and not added sugars.
More than one third of participants incorrectly thought milk contains no sugar. Less than one quarter correctly indicated that milk has natural sugar called lactose.
About half of people were concerned about the total amount of sugar in their drinks. Just under 40 percent were worried about only the added sugars, and most of them made beverage choices based on those concerns.
Not all sweet beverages should be avoided, Rampersaud said. Fruit juices, for instance, contain vitamins.
"If dietary recommendations recommend to replace sugary beverages in the diet (with the intent of replacing added-sugar beverages), our results suggest that nutrient-dense beverages containing only natural sugars, such as 100-percent orange juice, could also be eliminated from the diet," Rampersaud said.
"This means that consumers could miss out on the nutrition and health benefits that some beverages offer," she said. They may also keep drinking other beverages that contain added sugars they don't know about.
Rampersaud believes including added sugars on the Nutrition Facts panels would be helpful.
But because that would require more regulations, consumers need to know what to look for on labels and in ingredient lists so they can make the best choices.
"We need more research to identify education efforts that would be successful in enhancing consumer knowledge about sugars with the overall goal of helping consumers make more healthful beverage choices," Rampersaud said.