Graphic warning labels linked to reduced sugary drink purchases

June 18, 2018, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Warning labels that include photos linking sugary drink consumption with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay, may reduce purchases of the drinks, according to a new study by researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Business School. In a field study conducted in a hospital cafeteria, researchers found that graphic warning labels reduced sugary beverage purchases by 14.8%, while text warning labels and calorie labels had no effect.

"Warning labels have been around a long time for tobacco products, but they're a new concept for sugary drinks," said study co-lead author Grant Donnelly, assistant professor of marketing at Ohio State University and former doctoral student at Harvard Business School. "Text labels have been passed in San Francisco and are being considered in many jurisdictions in the U.S. and around the world. Ours is the first study to evaluate the effectiveness of sugary drink warning labels in the field."

The study will be published online June 18, 2018 in Psychological Science.

Researchers tested three different types of labels—text warnings and graphic warnings about the health risks of sugary drinks, and listings of the caloric value of the drinks—which they displayed near bottled and fountain beverages in a hospital cafeteria in Massachusetts. Each type of label was tested consecutively, with two-week "washout" periods between each test during which no label was displayed. More than 20,000 beverage sales were recorded during the study.

The findings showed that during the weeks when the graphic warnings were displayed, the share of purchased in the cafeteria declined by 14.8%. Consumers appeared to substitute bottled water for sugary drinks. The average calories per drink sold also decreased during that period from 88 calories to 75. The text warnings and calorie labels did not have a significant effect on beverage purchasing.

Then, the researchers conducted two follow-up studies online. In the first, consumers were asked about how seeing a graphic warning label would influence their drink purchases. Findings showed that the graphic warnings increased negative feelings toward sugary drinks and prompted increased consideration of health risks over taste.

In the second, nationally representative online study, more than 400 participants were asked whether they would support putting the three labels on sugar-sweetened beverages. When participants were told that were effective at reducing sugary beverage consumption, they were equally supportive of the graphic labels warnings compared to text warnings or calorie labels.

"Sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest source of added sugars in the American diet and reducing intake of these beverages could improve population health," said co-lead author Laura Zatz, doctoral student in the Departments of Nutrition and Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard Chan School. "As policymakers search for ways to reduce excess consumption of , graphic warning labels merit consideration as a tool that can empower consumers with salient information to encourage healthier choices."

Explore further: Health labels may deter people from buying sugary drinks

More information: "The Effect of Graphic Warnings on Sugary Drink Purchasing," Grant E. Donnelly, Laura Y. Zatz, Dan Svirsky, Leslie K. John, Psychological Science, online June 18, 2018, DOI: 10.1177/0956797618766361

Related Stories

Health labels may deter people from buying sugary drinks

May 25, 2018
Young adults are less likely to buy sugar-sweetened beverages that include health labels, particularly those with graphic warnings about how added sugar can lead to tooth decay, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

Teens are less likely to select sugary beverages that contain health warning labels

September 8, 2016
Teens are more than 15 percent less likely to say they would purchase soft drinks and other sugary drinks that include health warning labels, according to a new study led by researchers at the Center for Health Incentives ...

Warnings suggested on sugary drinks packaging

September 2, 2016
Plain packaging and warning labels may help reduce consumption of sugary drinks by young people, according to research from the University of Auckland.

Warning labels on alcohol containers highly deficient, new research shows

May 21, 2018
Current health warning labels on alcohol beverage containers in New Zealand are highly deficient, new research from the University of Otago, Wellington shows.

California bill seeks warnings on sugary drinks

February 13, 2014
California would become the first state to require warning labels on sodas and other sugary drinks under a proposal in the state Legislature.

Health warning labels may deter parents from purchasing sugar-sweetened beverages for kids

January 14, 2016
Health warning labels similar to those found on tobacco products may have a powerful effect on whether parents purchase sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) for their children, according to a new study led by the Perelman School ...

Recommended for you

Babies and toddlers at greater risk from second-hand smoke than previously thought, study finds

December 16, 2018
Infants and toddlers in low-income communities may be even more at risk from second- and third-hand smoke exposure than has been believed, according to new federally supported research.

A co-worker's rudeness can affect your sleep—and your partner's, study finds

December 14, 2018
Rudeness. Sarcastic comments. Demeaning language. Interrupting or talking over someone in a meeting. Workplace incivilities such as these are becoming increasingly common, and a new study from Portland State University and ...

A holiday gift to primary care doctors: Proof of their time crunch

December 14, 2018
The average primary care doctor needs to work six more hours a day than they already do, in order to make sure their patients get all the preventive and early-detection care they want and deserve, a new study finds.

Teens get more sleep with later school start time, researchers find

December 12, 2018
When Seattle Public Schools announced that it would reorganize school start times across the district for the fall of 2016, the massive undertaking took more than a year to deploy. Elementary schools started earlier, while ...

Large restaurant portions a global problem, study finds

December 12, 2018
A new multi-country study finds that large, high-calorie portion sizes in fast food and full service restaurants is not a problem unique to the United States. An international team of researchers found that 94 percent of ...

Receiving genetic information can change risk

December 11, 2018
Millions of people in the United States alone have submitted their DNA for analysis and received information that not only predicts their risk for disease but, it turns out, in some cases might also have influenced that risk, ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

AmeriBev
not rated yet Jun 20, 2018
America's beverage companies agree that people should be mindful of the sugar they consume. That's why we've included front of pack calorie labels on our products since 2010 – we believe the best way to help people make informed decisions about the amount of sugar they consume is with clear, fact-based labeling, not misleading labels. Obesity rates have continued to rise while soda consumption has fallen, and the beverage industry has evolved over the last decade to provide more options with less sugar and fewer calories. Today, 48 percent of all non-alcoholic beverages purchased have no sugar, and 60 percent of new brands and flavors hitting the market are low- or zero-calorie drinks.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.