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Study: Too Much Sugar in Drinks Marketed to Kids

It's no surprise that many sodas have a lot of sugar. What may be more surprising is that many fruit drinks, often billed as healthier alternatives, are often loaded with close to the same amount of sugar and calories, a report finds.

Oct. 31, 2011 -- It's no surprise that many sodas have a lot of sugar. What may be more surprising is that many fruit drinks, often billed as healthier alternatives, are often loaded with close to the same amount of sugar and calories.

That is one of the findings of a new report from Yale University.

The report, being presented today at the American Public Health association annual meeting in Washington, D.C., also finds that many beverage companies are marketing their drinks to kids and teens despite a promise to stop.

The American Beverage Association, an industry trade group, takes issue with the new findings. It says the beverage companies have taken many positive steps to protect children's health, including advertising only certain types of drinks on programming to children 12 and under.

Calories in Drinks

Researchers from Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity looked at the contents of close to 600 drinks made by 14 companies. They included sugary sodas, energy and sports drinks, fruit drinks, flavored waters, and iced teas as well as diet energy drinks and diet children's fruit drinks.

They found that an 8-ounce serving of a full-calorie, non-diet fruit drink has on average 110 calories and 7 teaspoons of sugar. This is equal to the amount that is found in an 8-ounce serving of sugary soda or energy drink.

"The companies have pledged not to advertise to children or if they do, it will just be for certain better-for-you products," says study researcher Jennifer Harris, PhD. She is director of marketing initiatives at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Unfortunately, their idea of "better-for-you" drinks is water, sugar, and a tiny amount of juice, she says.

"Many fruit and energy drinks have as much added sugar and calories as sugary sodas," Harris says. Some of these drinks have as much sugar as an 8-year-old should consume in a day, she says.

Full-calorie iced teas, sports drinks, and flavored waters typically contain 3 to 5 teaspoons of sugar per 8-ounce serving, the report states.

The stakes are high, Harris says.

Drinking just one 8-ounce sugar-sweetened drink everyday increases a child's odds for becoming obese by 60%. Sugary drinks are the No. 1 source of added sugar in our diets and the No. 1 source of calories for teens, the report states.

"Parents believe that drinks like Capri Sun, Sunny D, Gatorade, and Vitamin Water are healthy choices for their kids, but they are not," Harris says.

"We were surprised by how little juice there was in children's fruit drinks. And a lot of diet drinks have artificial sweeteners. But unless you know the chemical name, you wouldn't realize it," she says.

Harris says that the only appropriate drinks for children are water, low-fat milk, and 100% fruit juices.

Nutritionist Dana Greene, RD, agrees. "Don't be fooled by healthy-looking labels," she says. "Read the fine print and if you can't pronounce it, you probably don't need or want it in your child's body."

Advertising of Kids' Beverages

The researchers also analyzed advertising on television, the Internet, social media sites, and mobile apps.

Many beverage companies got behind the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative in November 2006. The initiative is designed to shift the mix of foods advertised to children under 12 to encourage healthier choices.

The report says that many -- although not all -- of these companies are not making good on their promises.

The exposure of children and teens to TV ads hawking unhealthy sugary soda doubled from 2008 to 2010, the study shows. The companies also seem to be increasingly targeting African-American and Hispanic youth, the new report suggests. In fact, African-American children and teens saw as much as 90% more ads than the white children and teens.

The study also shows that energy drinks are marketed to children and teens even though the American Academy of Pediatrics explicitly states these beverages are not appropriate for them.

Many beverage companies are also reaching kids and teens where they live -- namely social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, the study shows. Twenty-one sugary drink brands had YouTube channels in 2010.

Industry Perspective

Susan K. Neely, American Beverage Association president and CEO, says in a written statement that there has been a "dramatic change" in food and beverage advertising during children's programming. 

"The people at our member companies -- many of whom are parents themselves -- are delivering on their commitment to advertise only water, juice and milk on programming for children under 12."

What's more, the beverage industry has also removed full-calorie soft drinks from schools in favor of lower-calorie, smaller portion drinks, she says.

"This report is another attack by known critics in an ongoing attempt to single out one product as the cause of obesity when both common sense and widely accepted science have shown that the reality is far more complicated," says Neely.

Still, Scott Kahan, MD, an obesity expert at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says he is concerned about these trends.

"Decades of social science research show that marketing affects all of our preferences and choice, but kids are sitting ducks for advertisers," he says. "Putting a character like Shrek on food makes it taste better to kids."

In recent years, there has been a shift from focusing on preventing infections in children to concern about chronic diseases such as diabetes that are nutrition-related. "We wouldn't let our kids be attacked by ads for germ-infected products that would make them sick, but this study shows we are allowing them to be attacked by marketers of unhealthy foods that will make them sick," Kahan says.

He says that voluntary pledges by industry may not be enough. "There needs to be serious discussion about what the rules should be and who needs to play be them."

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