03/20/2015 01:54 pm ET Updated May 20, 2015

Tricking Parents Into Bad Choices

Parents usually have their kids' best interest in mind. They want them to grow healthy, acquire eating habits that promote wellness, and have beautiful, strong teeth. 

So how come kids are drinking so much sugar, an ingredient on the top of the list of foods to consume-less-of? Are kids buying it themselves? Are parents unable to resist kids' appeals for the sweet stuff? Or are parents unaware that sugary drinks are unhealthy?   

A group of researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, led by Jennifer Harris set out to understand what parents think about sugary drinks for their kids. The findings appear in Public Health Nutrition.

The researchers collected data from almost 1000 parents. And while it would be expected that parents would provide some sugary drinks as an occasional treat - to be enjoyed yet not promoted as a building block of good nutrition - the study found parents actually thought many of the sugary drinks did promote health. The majority of parents (56 percent) perceived Vitamin Water as somewhat or very healthy.  Sunny D (a fruit drink), Gatorade (a sports drink) and Capri Sun were considered healthy by about 40 percent of parents.

While most of the parents in this study (94 percent) thought soda was unhealthy, many believed that vitamin, fruit and sports drinks were healthy, and while ingredients like artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup and caffeine raised red flags, claims for naturalness, antioxidants and vitamin C made parents believe a drink was a good addition to their kids' diet. A third of the parents said they actually looked for such claims on the label and that it influenced purchasing behavior. 

Marketing liquid candy as health

Parents' confusion isn't accidental. The study reports that $784 million were spent in 2010 on sugary drinks ads and that adults saw on average 364 TV ads that year, about one a day. Many of these ads are directed at parents, and emphasize nutrition, planting the misperception that vitamins or electrolytes in a drink make it a good choice.

Which is the better choice?

So which should kids have, soda or vitamin drinks? The correct reply is neither. Both offer pretty much nothing kids need and sweeteners that they don't. They are special occasion indulgences at best. As to sports drinks, they have specific limited usefulness - they are for athletes involved in prolonged, vigorous physical activity - and are not for everyday hydration even when exercising. Fruit drinks, as opposed to 100 percent fruit juice (which has its own issues), may contain some fruit juice, but are mostly sugar or HFCS, color and flavor (natural or artificial), with the occasional added vitamins to suggest health. They, too, should be viewed as soda.

It's a pity that it's perfectly legal and so easy to misinform parents with bogus health claims and misleading marketing messages.

Dr. Ayala

Full disclosure: I'm vice president of product development for Herbal Water, where we make organic herb-infused waters that have zero calories and no sugar or artificial ingredients. I'm also a pediatrician and have been promoting good nutrition and healthy lifestyle for many years.