AP Photo/Toby Talbot

In a recent study, the labels dissuaded parents from buying the unhealthy beverages for their kids.

The recent update to the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans says that less than 10 percent of caloric intake should come from added sugars. That’s a considerable step back from the almost 270 calories that the average American takes in from the sweet stuff each day. Clearly, Americans have got to start cutting back—and the best place to start might be sugary drinks.

As the largest source by far of added sugar in our bellies, they increase the risk for diabetes, heart disease, and gout. That’s in addition to pushing up obesity rates, especially in kids.

But how to pry Americans away from their beloved soda? A study published Thursday in Pediatrics finds that slapping a tobacco-style warning label on sugary drinks might help steer shoppers away.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation commissioned the study, an online survey of nearly 2,400 parents of young children from diverse educational and demographic backgrounds. Parents were asked to select a beverage for their child from a variety of sweetened and unsweetened options. Each participant was randomly assigned to one of six “label conditions”: one where none of the beverages were labeled, another where all drinks had large “calories per bottle” labels, and four variations on warning labels applied only to sweetened drinks with 75 or more calories per 12 fluid ounces.

(Pediatrics)

The researchers found that significantly fewer parents chose a sugary beverage for their child when they’d seen one of the four warning labels (40 percent), compared to those who’d seen no label (60 percent) and those who’d only seen calorie labels (53 percent). Parents who’d seen warning labels also indicated that they believed the products were less healthy for their kids, and that they were less likely to buy them in the future.

"We were surprised that the warning labels had as big an impact as they did," the lead researcher Christina A. Roberto, a professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, told NPR. "I think the study shows us that calorie labels aren't terribly effective, and warning labels might have a bigger impact."

There are caveats, of course: Namely, this was an online survey in which the labels were given prominent visual emphasis. In the real world, the labels might not have had such a significant effect on parents. Additional research is needed to know for certain—and to better understand how labels might impact the decisions of children themselves.   

But in the U.S., where more than a third of the population is obese, putting warning labels on sugary drinks may be a way forward for a public health challenge that can seem intractable. Baltimore officials proposed such a law on Monday, and legislators in New York and California are working on similar state-wide measures.

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