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Marlene Schwartz, Ph.D.

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Trick or Treat! Scary Things Beverage Companies Do to Trick You and Your Kids

Posted: 10/31/2011 4:02 pm

On Halloween, I am usually focused on the amount of sugar that my children are going to consume from the candy they acquire during trick or treating. This year, however, our group at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity is releasing a major study that looks at the nutrition and marketing of sugary drinks to youth. As it turns out, the candy on Halloween isn't nearly as big a source of added sugar for our children as the sugary drinks that they consume every single day. In fact, the biggest source of added sugar in the American diet comes from beverages, and for teenagers, sugary drinks are the No. 1 single source of calories.

Our researchers analyzed the nutrition and marketing strategies of nearly 600 beverages from 14 companies. You can read the full report here, but to give you a taste of what we found, here are some sneaky tricks that the beverage industry is playing on us.

Fruit "drinks" are sugar water dressed up in a juice costume.

There is a whole category of "fruit drinks" out there, like Sunny D, Capri Sun, Hawaiian Punch and Kool Aid. I figured that these were not actually 100 percent juice, but I thought that they at least had some juice in them because the covers of the boxes and pouches are plastered with pictures of fruit.

The dozens of tropical fruits you see on the packages mean nothing -- the amount of juice, if any, in these drinks is tiny -- it is usually only 5 or 10 percent. Further, the type of juice that is in the drink often doesn't even match the fruit pictured or named on the cover. For example, Kool-Aid Jammers Tropical Punch shows a lime, lemon, orange, cherries and grapes on the front, but surprisingly, the 10 percent juice that is in there is from apples, which are not on the cover.

Fruit drinks are as sugary as soda.

Because these drinks are so heavily promoted for children, I thought they were probably less sugary than soda. But when we looked at the nutrition facts, many of them were just as filled with sugar soda. We looked at the nutrition for 8 ounces of regular (not diet) versions of 67 types of regular soda, 49 types of energy drinks and 216 types of fruit drinks, and the median calories of each category was the same -- 110 calories in 8 ounces. The median sugar was 27 grams for fruit drinks and energy drinks (6.75 teaspoons) and 30 grams (7.5 teaspoons) in the soda. Parents will be shocked at these numbers -- parents we surveyed said an appropriate amount of added sugar in a children's drink is between 1 and 2 teaspoons. These drinks have more than three times that amount.

Companies can say "No artificial flavors" on children's drinks and still put in artificial sweeteners like Splenda, often in addition to sugar.

Part of the healthy costume for 79 percent of the children's fruit drinks was saying something like "natural flavors," "naturally flavored," or "all natural" on the package. We were surprised to find that 40 percent of children's fruit drinks contain artificial sweeteners; this included all of the types of Sunny D, all Kool-Aid Singles and some types of Hawaiian Punch. Capri Sun Roarin' Waters was most surprising because on the box it clearly states "no artificial colors or flavors," but the ingredients list sucralose (Splenda). Apparently, the FDA does not think sweetness is a flavor.

Companies are getting to your children when you don't expect it. Parents know that when we allow our children to watch television they are going to see commercials. But what parents don't know is how beverage companies are reaching our children through other methods. Our study found that many companies have shifted from traditional media such as television to newer forms that engage youth (often when parents are not around) through interactive websites, Facebook, Twitter, smartphone apps, online reward programs for purchasing sugary drinks and sponsorship of community events.

Companies market heavily-caffeinated drinks to teens and then hide how much caffeine is there. As parents we are concerned about the amount of caffeine in beverages that our children drink. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics makes it clear that heavily-caffeinated energy drinks (e.g., Red Bull, Rockstar, Venom, Monster and Amp) have no place in the diet of a child or adolescent. Yet, caffeine content is often not listed on the can or bottle because it is not required to be there. We looked for caffeine amounts on the cans and bottles, went to company websites and called customer service, and were still unable to get the caffeine content for half of the energy drinks.

What can parents do?

1. As parents, we can make a difference in the diets of our children. Once your child is over two years old, we recommend serving only water, low-fat or non-fat plain milk, and small (i.e., 4-6 ounces) of 100 percent juice maximum each day. When your child is 7-years-old or older, juice can go up to 8-12 ounces per day.

2. If you want something fizzy, try mixing a small amount of juice with some seltzer water for a homemade fruit drink.

3. Ignore the front of the package. Read the nutrition labels and ingredients labels carefully and check for sugar, artificial sweeteners and artificial flavors. Remember, four grams of sugar equals one teaspoon. Most children should not consume more than 15 grams of added sugar per day -- that's between 3 and 4 teaspoons. But just one 8-ounce fruit drink usually has over six teaspoons of added sugar.

What can the beverage industry do?

1. The beverage industry needs to help parents not undermine their efforts to limit added sugar. If the beverages are marketed to children or teens, they should be water, milk or 100 percent juice, and contain no added sugar, artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners or caffeine.

2. If any of these ingredients are added to the product, it should be disclosed clearly and consistently on the front of the package. Nutrition-related claims that are potentially misleading to consumers should be removed.

3. Parents are concerned about caffeine. The industry must stop targeting teens with marketing for sugary drinks and caffeinated products, and the amount of caffeine in every product should be disclosed on the packaging and online.