One word: Marketing

Despite relentless public health messaging about the importance of reducing the consumption of sugar, a new study showed that parents almost universally believe that fruit drinks, sports drinks and flavored water are perfectly healthy options for their children to suck down on a daily basis.

Even though they’re loaded with sugar.

Why? One word: Marketing.

At least that’s the conclusion of a national survey conducted by the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, which reported that 96% of parents had given sugary drinks to their children in the previous month.

“Although most parents know that soda is not good for children, many still believe that other sugary drinks are healthy options,” Jennifer Harris, PhD, Rudd Center director of marketing initiatives and author of the study, which was published in Public Health Nutrition, said in a statement. “The labeling and marketing for these products imply that they are nutritious, and these misperceptions may explain why so many parents buy them.”

The survey revealed that parents of children ages 2 to 5 who provided sugary beverages to their kids most often gave them fruit drinks and regular soda (77% and 62%, respectively), followed by sports drinks, sweetened iced tea and flavored water drinks. Nearly half of all parents rated flavored water as healthy, and more than a quarter also considered fruit drinks and sports drinks to be healthy.

Wow. Doesn’t anyone read nutritional labels?

Here’s what I mean: SunnyD, the popular kids’ drink whose Cincinnati-based manufacturer claims it was “reverse engineered from the sun,” boasts that just one glass provides “100% of the recommended daily requirement of vitamin C.” But what they don’t mention is that each glassful also delivers 93% of its 120 calories from sugar.

Forget SunnyD’s brightly visible packaging. Your kids are basically drinking orange-colored, flavored sugar-water.

Uncovering the hidden factor

Even though parents reported that nutritional claims, such as statements that drinks were “real” or “natural” or that they contained added vitamin C or antioxidants, were “important considerations in their purchasing decisions,” I don’t believe that’s the only reason people buy those products.

If all that marketers needed to do was slap a “Contains Added Vitamins!” banner on a food product’s packaging to drive sales, a heck of a lot more nutritionally suspect foods would be jumping off the supermarket shelves. Heck, you could plaster meat and poultry packages with stickers that said, “Now With More Protein!” and according to that logic, sales would start soaring.

No, it’s not merely marketing that’s driving parents to decide that packaged sugar-water is a wonderful alternative for their youngsters.

The other factor at play here is the equally relentless messaging that dairy products are not the best choice for children.

Thanks to nutritionists’ overwrought concerns about fat — witness the never-ending flood of low-fat, reduced-fat, non-fat yogurts and dairy drinks — as an unhealthy nutrient to be avoided, coupled with the blanket condemnation of milk and other dairy products by way too many self-styled dietary gurus — witness the plethora of plant-based milks heavily marketed as “better for you” alternatives — many parents have fallen for the hype about “healthy” beverages that are fat-free but loaded with sugar.

The result, as anyone can verify by spending half an hour at the local mall, is the national obesity epidemic with which we’re struggling. Ironically, it’s that very problem that makes “no-fat-zone” nutritional hype sound credible, which, in turn, encourages parents to avoid buying milk and instead (unintentionally) hook their kids on sweetened fruit juice and soda drinks.

As the study’s authors noted, “The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugar to 10% of total calories” (about one serving of most flavored “fruit-like” products). “Previous research has shown that children and teens consume more than twice the recommended amount of sugar, and that sugary drinks are the top source of added sugar in Americans’ diets.”

We didn’t need a national survey to confirm that factoid, but the study’s conclusions are worth referencing:

“Children ages 13 and under [should] drink only water, low-fat and nonfat milk, and 100% juice, and adolescents ages 14 to 18 [should] drink only water, low-fat and nonfat milk, 100% juice, and other non-caffeinated, non-fortified beverages with no more than 40 calories per container.”

We should all drink to that.

Only with something other than SunnyD.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.