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Parents Need to Know That Sports and Energy Drinks Are Not Healthy for Kids

Although many public service announcements (PSAs) about sugar-sweetened beverages emphasize that the drinks are high in sugar and calories, most parents already know that, so PSAs that take this approach to curtailing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages are likely to be ineffective, a study of Philadelphia parents has found.

But parents do believe that sports and energy drinks are healthier than other the other sugary drinks. So public service announcements seeking to curtail the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages should try to reduce the belief that those drinks are healthy, too.

“Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption by Adult Caregivers and Their Children: The Role of Drink Features and Advertising Exposure,” was published online in March by the journal Health Education & Behavior. The study was based on a 2012 representative telephone survey of 371 Philadelphia parents in households with children between the ages of 3 and 16, and was led by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

The study evaluated parents’ attitudes toward sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) and the relationship between their attitudes, their consumption, and their children’ consumption. The study noted that SSBs add an average of more than 200 calories a day to the diet of children and adolescents.

“Philadelphia’s parents know that soda is filled with sugar and calories,” said Michael Hennessy, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a senior research analyst at the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC). “The approach of anti-sugar PSAs will probably be ineffective because parents already know that.”

Hennessy said the researchers found that what is important to parents is whether they believe drinks are healthy. Sports and energy drinks, he said, “are just as sugary, but they’re not seen as SSBs. These drinks are marketed as beverages that increase competitive advantage, on the sports field, at work, or in school.”

Other findings of the study include:

  • Nearly all of the surveyed parents (96 percent) reported seeing at least one ad for a sugar-sweetened drink per week; just over half (55 percent) reported seeing an anti-SSB ad.
  • Seeing anti-sugar sweetened beverage PSAs had no effect on parents’ consumption or their children’s consumption of sugary drinks.
  • However, parents’ exposure to ads for SSBs did have an effect on their own consumption of soda, sweetened tea, and fruit drinks.
  • Parents’ exposure to sugar-sweetened beverages ads did have an effect on their children’s consumption of sweetened tea and sports drinks.

Any campaign to reduce consumption of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, the study concluded, “should work to reduce the belief that SSBs are a healthy drink and/or part of a healthy lifestyle.”

Additional authors on the study were Amy Bleakley, senior research scientist at APPC; Jessica Taylor Piotrowski of the University of Amsterdam; Giridhar Mallya of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health; and Amy Jordan, associate director of APPC.