Parents and Kids Are still Being Fooled by Beverage Marketers

Misleading and deceptive labels on sweetened drinks aimed at children contribute to their dominance over real juice — the stuff made 100% from fruit — in sales nationwide, a new report finds. 62% of fruit drinks and flavored waters intended for kids contain added sugars (known to contribute to obesity, heart disease, and other health problems over time) or low-calorie sweeteners that experts fear simply get kids hooked on sweet food and drinks in general.Some of the marketing tactics — colorful packages, wild flavor names, and cartoon characters — date back decades, when tobacco companies bought sugary drink brands like Hawaiian Punch and Kool-Aid, and employed their marketing know-how to peddle the products to children. The study analyzed 34 different sweetened drinks (including SunnyD and Minute Maid Lemonade) and 33 drinks without added sweeteners (including Juicy Juice and Apple & Eve) from 23 brands, all part of a $2.2 billion industry of fruit drinks, flavored waters, and powdered drink mixes aimed primarily at children under 12, on which companies spent $20.7 million in 2018 advertising.All were marketed for consumption by kids. The products were identified based on the targets of their ads, as well as packaging that included imagery of cartoon characters and pictures of kids and phrases like "good for kids." What is actually in these beverages, the researchers find, is anything but good:Two-thirds had no real juice.More than half that contained juice had just 5%. 85% of packages showed images of fruit, even if the products contained no juice.65% had added sugars, 74% contained low-calorie sweeteners and 38% had both.Links to disease"This is an important study because it showed that children are continuing to consume high levels of fruit drinks and juice and that these beverages are sweetened with added sugar, low-calorie sweeteners, or a combination," said Vasanti Malik, a research scientist in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Malik, who was not involved in the work, led a separate study earlier this year that found the more sugar-sweetened beverages people consume, the greater their risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.Other research has linked sweetened beverages to a higher risk of several health problems, including heart attacks, diabetes and depression, as well as obesity in children and adults."There is strong and consistent evidence linking intake of sugary beverages to adverse health in children," Malik says. "For artificially sweetened beverages the evidence is less consistent. However, artificially sweetened beverages are also very sweet and it is possible that consuming these on a regular basis over time could habituate towards a preference towards sweets."Separately, nutrition experts last month issued new guidelines on what children through age five should drink: Water, milk, breast milk, and infant formula are the preferred options. "The advertising, and also the child-directed messages on product packages, are designed to get children to pester their parents to buy them."Lots of fruit… on the outsideAccording to the report, kid-targeted brands selling both sweetened and unsweetened drinks, including Apple & Eve, Capri Sun, and Mott's, "used similar-looking packages, flavor names, fruit images, and claims for all their products." Parents are confused and often do not realize the difference, and chose the less healthy option at the urging of their children. In fact, the companies market the sweetened products directly to children "to create pester power," says study leader Jennifer Harris of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut. "The advertising, and also the child-directed messages on product packages, are designed to get children to pester their parents to buy them." Kraft Heinz, for example, advertised Kool-Aid Jammers and Capri Sun Roarin' Waters on children's TV programming, the study finds. Kids saw twice as many TV ads for sweetened drinks in 2018 as for non-sweetened drinks, primarily amid shows aimed at children.The drinks also frequently include zero-calories sweeteners with unrecognizable names like acesulfame potassium and sucralose."That I think is deceptive, not just misleading," Harris says, adding that research shows parents do not want their kids ingesting artificial sweeteners. But in focus groups, she finds that even well-educated parents are easily tricked.Some companies also employ an emerging "health halo trend," pitching the products as organic, or lower in sugar, or loaded with vitamin C, to target parents with drinks intended for kids, Harris says. In effect, they are "taking a sugary drink and trying to make it seem healthy and natural," she says. The study did not include juices or flavored water aimed primarily at adults, a whole separate category of products that also often contain little or no real juice and are typically located in different areas on store shelves, separate from the kid-targeted drinks. Nor were sodas included.Roots in cigarette adsSugar-coated sweetened-beverage marketing to kids is nothing new. Starting in the early 1960s, tobacco giants R. J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, facing increased scrutiny from health officials, bought food and drink companies and used their selling tactics — including those learned from cartoon-based campaigns like Joe Camel — to hawk the products to kids."Executives in the two largest U.S.-based tobacco companies had developed flavors as additives for cigarettes and used them to build major children's beverage product lines, including Hawaiian Punch, Kool-Aid, Tang, and Capri Sun," says Laura Schmidt at the UC San Francisco Institute for Health Policy Studies. Schmidt and colleagues revealed the tactics, after studying previously secret industry documents, in the journal BMJ earlier this year. "Even after the tobacco companies sold these brands to food and beverage corporations, many of the product lines and marketing techniques designed to attract kids are still in use today," Schmidt said.Harris, the Rudd researcher, agrees that those marketing tactics are still at play, along with names irresistible to kids like Bug Juice, Little Hug, Mondo Squeezers, and Tum-e Yummies.The Rudd report suggests the FDA should prohibit companies from using images of fruit on products that contain little or no real juice, and encourages states to tax sugary drinks. Meantime, Harris cautions parents: "The front of the package does not tell you what is inside. It's impossible to tell."Update: An earlier version of this story stated that Mott's for Tots apple juice contains added sugar. It does not

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