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Teens Run Away From High-Calorie, High-Sugar Drinks


If a notice next to a pint of ice cream stated you would need to run nearly 2 hours to burn off the calories in one serving, would you think twice before buying the dessert? A new study shows that teens who were told how far they would have to run to burn off the calories in a can of high-calorie, high-sugar soda were about 50 percent less likely to make the purchase.

Make calorie information meaningful and people will listen

Sometimes it’s not the content of the information but how it is presented that makes a big difference. If a package of cookies tells you there are 200 calories in one serving, this information may be too abstract. However, noting that you would need to walk briskly for 90 minutes to burn off the calories in one serving is more meaningful.

In the case of providing consumers with calorie information on foods, especially high-calorie, high-sugar, and/or high-fat foods, making the information meaningful or relatable to their lives in some way may make individuals pay attention and act on the data offered.

At Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Sara Bleich, PhD, and her colleagues studied the effect of providing black teens in a low-income area with calorie information on soda. “Proving easily understandable caloric information—particularly in the form of a physical activity equivalent, such as running—may reduce calorie intake from sugar-sweetened beverages and increase water consumption among low-income black adolescents,” explained Bleich.

Data from 1,600 beverage sales in four neighborhood stores in low-income areas of Baltimore were collected. Specifically, the researchers looked at sales to black adolescents ages 12 to 18, which included 400 purchases before they were presented with calorie information, and then 400 purchases for each of three different types of information provided.

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The three types of information were printed on 8.5-inch-by-12-inch bright signs that were posted in a prominent place on the beverage case in each store. They stated:

  • “Did you know that a bottle of soda or fruit juice has about 250 calories?”
  • “Did you know that a bottle of soda or fruit juice has about 10% of your daily calories?”
  • “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?”

Informing teens that their beverage choices had a high amount of calories or a high percentage of daily calories did result in a marginally significant reduction in their purchasing. However, when the sign about running was displayed, the teens were significantly more likely (about half the time) to pass up the high-sugar drinks.

Although the study had some limitations—including the fact that it included only low-income black teens and the researchers could not be sure exactly how many teens read the calorie information, it does support previous studies indicating that offering consumers information on total calories is not especially successful in motivating a change in purchasing behaviors.

Can we expect to see information placards regarding calorie content and exercise necessary to burn them off in our grocery stores and fast food restaurants soon? It’s much too early to make that prediction, but for now, further studies are needed to determine if using exercise information can influence the purchase of high-sugar, high-calorie drinks by teens and other groups at risk for obesity.

Bleich SN et al. Reduction in purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages among low-income black adolescents after exposure to caloric information. American Journal of Public Health 2011

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons