Fruit drink labeling is confusing to many parents, study finds


Dive Brief:

  • Most parents of young children cannot identify key ingredients in children’s drinks after reviewing the packaging, Nutrition Facts and the ingredients list, according to research emailed to Food Dive from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut and the School of Global Public Health at New York University. This includes the presence of added sugars, no- and low-calorie sweeteners and the percentage of juice. 
  • In an online experiment, researchers showed more than 1,600 parents of children ages 1 to 5 the packages of eight popular children’s drinks, including sweetened fruit drinks and flavored waters and unsweetened 100% juice and juice/water blends. The study’s findings, which were published in Pediatric Obesity, reveal that 62% of parents could not point out most of the beverages that contained low- or no-calorie sweeteners
  • Many parents overestimated the average juice content in the sugar-sweetened drinks, and more than one-third believed that products labeled “100% juice” contained less than that. However, they tended to be more confident in their ability to identify added sugars than diet sweeteners, showing the different varieties of low- and no-calorie options could be confusing to many parents. 

Dive Insight:

In the research, nearly seven in 10 parents were confident or very confident they could identify added sugars. When looking at only the front of packages, 84% were able to correctly identify these products. 

While research found that parents who viewed Nutrition Facts and ingredients information on drink packaging were more likely to call out the products with sugar and diet sweeteners, this information alone was not enough to help the one-quarter of parents who thought sweetened flavored waters had no added sugar.

Health experts have roundly cautioned parents to limit their kids’ sugar and sweetener consumption. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends young children not consume sugary drinks or products that contain diet sweeteners. U.S. Dietary Guidelines also advise against these products for children under age 2. Studies have tied sugar consumption to obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. But 25% of 1- to 2-year-olds and 45% percent of 2- to 4-year-olds consume sugary beverages on any given day, the report notes.

Manufacturers have attempted to respond to parents’ concerns about the sugar content in children’s juices, with new products rolling out from Juicy Juice, Honest Tea and Hint. Juice waters are another recent innovation. In 2020, Nestlé Pure Life introduced a Fruity Water line with no sugar or sweeteners. And early this year, PepsiCo debuted a line of juice waters for teens with no added sugar or artificial sweeteners.   

This category of beverages causes its own level of confusion. Parents in the Rudd Center research were more likely to believe statements such as “natural” and “water beverage” on packaging meant the beverage had no added sugar or diet sweeteners and contained juice, even though the opposite could be true. 

However, many parents clearly feel underequipped to evaluate the suitability of children’s drinks or decipher ingredient listings. For example, according to the Rudd Center research, less than half of parents felt they could identify diet sweeteners. This category includes sucralose and acesulfame K — names that could be foreign to many consumers who are reading an ingredient list. 

According to 2020 research from the Sugar Association, 63% of consumers were unable to identify sugar substitutes as the sweetening ingredient in foods. And two-thirds felt that food companies should be required to clearly identify sugar substitutes as “sweeteners” in ingredient lists. The FDA has been weighing how to label added sweeteners in food, such as maltitol, rebaudioside A and erythritol. The Sugar Association has argued that currently, manufacturers can label products with such ingredients as “no sugar added,” which leads some consumers to assume the products have no other sweeteners. 

The recent research seems to corroborate how much the terminology around sweeteners is confusing to consumers, and parents in particular. Researchers with the University of Connecticut and New York University argue their findings underline the need for regulations that would require manufacturers to clearly note any added sugar, diet sweetener and juice content on the front of children’s drink packaging, where parents are more likely to see it.