Teens Purchase Fewer Sugary Drinks After Seeing In-Store Calorie Signage

Study shows providing calorie information as a physical activity equivalent may be most effective.

    • December 14, 2011

Teenagers from lower-income, predominately Black neighborhoods in Baltimore purchased fewer sodas, energy drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages after seeing calorie information on signs posted in convenience stores, according to a study published today in the American Journal of Public Health.

The study, which was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its Healthy Eating Research program, evaluated three different ways of providing adolescents with calorie information. One poster noted that a typical bottle of soda or fruit drink contains 250 calories. Another sign told customers that a bottle of soda or fruit drink contains 10 percent of their daily recommended calories. The third sign informed teens that they would have to jog for 50 minutes* to burn off the calories in a single bottle of soda or fruit drink.

Researchers discovered that providing any calorie information reduced the odds that teenagers would purchase a sugary drink by roughly 40 percent compared with providing no information. Calorie information provided as a physical activity equivalent was most effective, reducing the odds of the Black adolescents purchasing a sugar-sweetened beverage by 50 percent. This is the first study to examine whether different presentations of calorie information for sugar-sweetened beverages might influence customers’ purchases.

“Teenagers were less likely to purchase a sugar-sweetened beverage and more likely to select a healthier choice like water after they saw the calorie information signs,” said lead researcher Sara Bleich, PhD, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The study noted that non-sugar-sweetened beverages, such as water or diet soda, accounted for 6.7 percent of all purchases at the beginning of the study. After calorie posting, those purchases roughly doubled, rising to 12 percent to 14 percent—depending on the sign used to present caloric information.

“This study showed that Black teenagers will use calorie information, especially when presented in an easy- to-understand format, such as a physical activity equivalent, to make healthier choices when it comes to buying a drink at the local corner store,” said Bleich. “Most consumers underestimate the number of calories in a can of soda, and they often do not realize that such calories can add up quickly.”
Bleich and her colleagues focused on four corner stores within walking distance of middle and high schools in lower-income, mostly Black neighborhoods in Baltimore city. The team randomly posted the three types of caloric information on brightly colored signs on beverage cases and then kept track of beverage sales at each corner store.

Previous research shows that the average American teenager consumes roughly 300 calories per day from sugar-sweetened beverages. Research also shows that drinking sugary beverages leads to higher overall caloric intake and greater risk for being overweight or obese. Nearly one third of U.S. children and teenagers are overweight or obese, and Black teenagers are especially at risk for this serious health problem, which can trigger diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

The study comes on the heels of a national effort to provide consumers with detailed nutritional information at the point of purchase. In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to publish final regulations mandating that chain restaurants– defined as those operating at least 20 locations—post calorie counts on menus alongside price and provide additional information such as total fat, sodium, and cholesterol upon customer request. Non-chain restaurants and individual food retail establishments will have the option to voluntarily comply with the new requirements, which were included in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

*To translate calories into a physical activity equivalent, researchers calculated that a 15-year-old who weighs 110 pounds would need to replace sitting with running for 50 minutes to burn off the 250 calories in a bottle of soda.

About Healthy Eating Research
Healthy Eating Research is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The program supports research on environmental and policy strategies with strong potential to promote healthy eating among children to prevent obesity, especially among lower-income and racial and ethnic populations at highest risk for obesity. For more information, visit www.healthyeatingresearch.org.

About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, measureable and timely change. For nearly 40 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org.