The new nutrition label attracts more attention to sugar and calorie content, but did not impact consumer choices when asked to choose between sugary beverages and healthier options, a recent UF/IFAS study says.
This year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration updated the Nutrition Facts Label to highlight certain information, including added sugars, to help consumers make healthier food choices. The UF/IFAS study investigated whether or not the change inspired healthier beverage choices.
“We were interested in how effective the newly updated nutrition label was in terms of altering consumer’s choices,” said Hayk Khachatryan, UF/IFAS food and resource economics associate professor. “Specifically, choices related to sugary beverages.”
“Juice catches some heat because of the sugar content, but now that added sugars are teased out on the label, consumers can differentiate between the natural sugars in juice and added sugars in soda,” Brandon McFadden, University of Delaware assistant professor and lead researcher of the study said. “I was curious if that actually mattered to consumers.”
Utilizing eye tracking software in Khachatryan’s lab at the UF/IFAS Mid-Florida Research and Education Center, consumers were asked to choose between branded beverages including soda, diet soda, 100% orange juice, 48% orange juice and water, with either the updated nutrition label or the previous label.
Prior to making their selections, participants were asked to view information from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention that explained the health effects and presence of sugar in food and beverages.
“Our research found that the new label attracts more attention to the sugar and calorie content, but it did not change their choices,” Khachatryan said. “We need further investigation to understand why that is, however.”
Participants spent a greater amount of time viewing the label to view sugar content, but frequently chose the beverages with added sugars over those without.
“It could be that people are looking at the label because it was new, but that it did not impact preferences because people already know that what they like is healthy or unhealthy so the information confirmed a prior belief instead of providing new information,” McFadden said. “Also, on average, taste is more important than nutrition for consumers. Nutrition information is great and it’s important that it is available for when we want to make a change. But the results show it seems unlikely that the actual information itself will prompt a change.”
The updated label may not sway consumers beverage choices, but reducing consumption of added sugar is important, nutrition experts say.
“No more than 10% of all the calories you consume should be from added sugars,” said Sharon Austin, UF/IFAS Extension Family Nutrition Program specialist. “Added sugars accelerate weight gain which increases the risk of obesity and chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.”
Beverages do not provide the same feeling of fullness as food, so you often consume more of a sugary beverage than if you were eating a sugary food.
“Everything you eat and drink counts,” she said. “Sometimes we only think about the things we eat and not what we drink, but beverages account for almost half of all added sugars consumed by the U.S. population according to the Dietary Guidelines of Americans.”
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are released every five years by Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reflect advancements in scientific knowledge and translate the science current at the time into sound food-based guidance to promote health in the U.S. We hope that they look with a scientific eye whether or not the label change is significant, she said.
“Added sugars are avoidable,” Austin said. “Fruit juice has natural sugars, but not added sugars. These labels help explain the difference by pulling out those added sugars. When choosing between fruit juice and a soda, we would recommend you choose the juice because those natural sugars are the healthier option.”
If you are absolutely craving a soda or sugary beverage, Austin recommends opting for a smaller size.
“Carry water with you everywhere you go to stay hydrated and curb the temptation of buying something sugary,” she said. “Added sugars in beverages are avoidable and we should all do our best to choose healthier options.”