Health experts advise against giving children drinks with added sugars and artificial flavors, yet these are the types of drinks that are predominantly sold. Researchers at NYU School of Global Public Health are recommending for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to modify labeling regulations to help consumers make healthier choices.
A large number of drinks on the market for children have labels that can easily be misinterpreted, making it difficult for parents to distinguish between nutritional fruit juices and sugary drinks. The FDA regulates drink labels, but a wide range of claims often appear on the packaging that do not accurately represent the drink’s ingredients.
“Given the many different drinks marketed to children that contain or appear to contain juice, it is important that caregivers are able to differentiate among products and identify healthier options,” said study lead author Jennifer Pomeranz.
The team investigated the labels and ingredients of top-selling children’s juice drinks, including brands with at least $10 million in annual sales. For comparison among brands, the experts focused their study on fruit punch drinks.
Among 39 fruit punch drinks, the amount of fruit juice was found to vary dramatically. Seven drinks contained 100 percent juice, and eight drinks contained anywhere from 2 to 99 percent juice with added sugars or low-calorie sweeteners. Meanwhile, eight of the drinks contained less than two percent fruit juice, if any, and consisted mainly of flavoring and sugar.
The FDA requires products with 100 percent juice to provide information about added sweeteners on the label, but products with less than 100 percent juice are not required to do so. As a result, there are deceptive nutrition claims on many drink labels.
For example, drinks containing stevia extract included claims such as “no artificial sweeteners” and “no sugar added.” In addition, less than half of the drinks with images of fruit on the packaging actually included juice from the featured fruit.
“We identified numerous labeling practices that obscure the true nature of drinks trying to pass as juice, blurring the distinction between drinks that are acceptable for children and those containing added sugar or sweeteners,” added Pomeranz. “Nonetheless, these practices align with current FDA regulations, which allow the naming and use of fruit images that reflect the drink’s flavor, regardless of the product’s ingredients.”
“The FDA should make it easier for consumers to tell what products are healthy for children – without having to carefully inspect the nutrition panel and decipher each ingredient on the back of the package.”
The study is published in the American Journal of Public Health.