Few, if any, food and beverage products undergo as much scrutiny as those designed for and marketed toward children—or, more specifically, their parents. Parents today monitor the foods and drinks they give their children for everything from sugar and sodium content to artificial flavors and colors, even taking it a step further and asking what benefits these products can bring their children beyond being “healthy.” Recent reports of contamination within baby and toddler foods have only increased the scrutiny on these products.
However, recent research conducted by the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health, and published in Maternal & Child nutrition, found the overabundance of choices, combined with misleading or confusing marketing messages and imaging, has left many parents confused about various types of beverages available to their children (2022:e13338). Specifically, parents are confused about different product categories, including sweetened fruit-flavored drinks, 100% juice, toddler milks, and infant formulas.
The researchers conducted several focus groups, which included showing products to parents along with information sheets about the products. The parents were then asked a series of questions to gauge their understanding of, and opinions about, each product. Analysis of the focus groups revealed five key themes to the researchers:
- Marketing messages (including claims) lead to misperceptions about product healthfulness and benefits for children and/or hide problematic ingredients.
- Confusion between product categories (sweetened fruit-flavoured drinks vs. 100% juice, toddler milks vs. infant formula)
- Cross-branding and product extensions contribute to the confusion
- Lower price of sweetened drinks encourages purchases
- Targeted marketing to parents and children is effective
“These findings confirm that marketing for sweetened fruit-flavored drinks and toddler milks can mislead parents to believe these products are healthful options for young children and contribute to their provision against expert recommendations,” the researchers concluded. “Findings also demonstrate that providing factual information about product ingredients and the meaning of potentially misleading marketing messages, as conveyed in the concept sheets presented in the groups, can be an effective approach to correcting common misperceptions and gaining support for policies and regulations to increase ingredient transparency and address marketing of sweetened children's drinks.”
The researchers provided several specific steps that may be taken to address the issues and ensure consumers are making the best, most-informed decisions possible when it comes to feeding themselves and their families.
“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could require consistent reporting of added sugar … for both sweetened drinks and unsweetened juices, and the U.S. Congress could allow the FDA to require a percent juice declaration on front-of-packages,” the authors noted. Other suggestions included stricter requirements for substantiation of claims, separating less nutritious options to other locations within stores, aggressive counter-marketing campaigns, and bridging the price gap between options of varying level of nutritional quality.
“Public health initiatives, including consumer education campaigns and additional regulations, are needed to address confusion about ingredients in different products and misperceptions of benefits for young children,” the authors concluded.