Children rarely opt for plain, whole beverages and foods like water and vegetables when they’re also offered brightly colored sports drinks, canned sodas, or cookies and candy. But the root of kids’ bad health choices may not lie in their natural taste preferences but rather what’s being placed in front of them to begin with. A new study suggests that’s true— at least when it comes to beverages.
Researchers at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found parents are still confused about what constitutes a healthy beverage. They are being misled by product labels, and although the majority may stop short of keeping soda in the home, they are still purchasing flavored waters, sports drinks and juice drinks that are often just as high, if not higher, in sugar. Eager children love these sugary drinks— many of which are made specifically for them— but it could be time for parents to draw the line for the sake of their kids’ health.
The scope of the problem
About half of all Americans consume a sugary drink on any given day, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And when it comes to children, this consumption has been associated with the childhood obesity epidemic, as more than one-third of all children overweight or obese, according to the CDC. Considering that a 12-ounce serving of soda contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar and 150 calories, it’s not difficult to see why.
A 2012 study from the CDC found that children were getting 41 percent of their daily added sugar calories from drinks— and most of those calories were coming from the refrigerator at home.
Experts say soda is far from the only drink driving this problem. An analysis from Harvard University’s Nutrition Source estimates there are 125 calories and 8 grams of sugar in a Capri Sun pouch, for example, and 10 teaspoons and 170 calories in a 12-ounce serving of orange juice. These are the types of beverages that parents are offering instead of soda— seemingly providing their children with alternatives they feel are healthier but actually are not.
The recent study from the Rudd Center surveyed nearly 1,000 parents online, seeking to determine just how they were analyzing their children’s drink options. They found that 77 percent provided juice drinks like Sunny D or Capri Sun in the previous month. More than one-third of parents— 43 percent for Sunny D and 36 percent for Capri Sun— believed these were healthy options. Flavored water was another point of confusion, with 56 percent responding that Vitamin Water is healthy, despite most Vitamin Water flavors containing 31 grams of sugar per 20 ounce bottle.
Why aren’t parents getting the message?
Parents are reading labels but maybe not the right ones. The Rudd researchers found that claims on the front of packages are playing a significant role in purchasing decisions. These labels often mislead consumers into believing the products are healthier than they truly are. For instance, labeling a juice drink as having added vitamins, but neglecting to mention it has as much sugar as a can of cola, could easily confuse parents scanning the front labels on a grocery store shelf.
“I think one of the most important takeaways from the Rudd study is that companies can play an important role in being part of the solution,” said Tina J. Kauh, research and evaluation program officer with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the study. The foundation is funneling millions of dollars into the fight against childhood obesity, and combating consumption of sugary beverages is one way they’re hoping to tackle the massive problem.
Kauh says beverage companies have a responsibility to their customers to “not employ marketing strategies that imply beverages are healthier than they really are.”
These companies aren’t just designing labels that sell these beverages, but they are also marketing directly to the children who will drink them. In a 2008 analysis, the Federal Trade Commission found 44 major food and beverage companies spent $1.6 billion marketing directly to children and adolescents.
Choosing healthier drink options
Water is the best choice for everyone when it comes to hydration. But for parents of children who are resistant to drinking water or for those who want to provide their children with variety, Lori Zanini, registered dietitian with Healthcare Partners in Torrance, California, offers some solutions.
Here are a few healthy drink choices besides water:
● Sparkling flavored waters without sugar or sugar substitutes (sold under brand names like La Croix and Crystal Geyser)
● Homemade “spa water” or fruit- and herb-infused waters
● Unsweetened and unflavored milk (including dairy substitutes like almond and hemp milks)
You also can opt for special straws or colorful drinking cups to encourage your child to drink more water, Zanini says.
But what about fruit juice? While 100 percent fruit juice may not have added sugars and instead relies on naturally occurring fruit sugars, Zanini says that doesn’t necessarily make it OK.
“Fruit juice has roughly the same amount of carbohydrates and calories as soda,” she says, “so while juice may have vitamins that soda does not, we know there are much better ways for our kids to get those vitamins— particularly by eating the whole fruit.”
Eating the whole fruit also delivers fiber, which is something that’s largely absent in juice. Fiber promotes feelings of fullness and contributes to regular digestion: two additional supporters of a healthy weight.
In the end, parents are the last line of defense between children and obesity despite what drink makers put on their labels or who their commercials speak to. Plain water may not be much fun to young children, but neither are the outcomes associated with an unhealthy diet.