In-Store Calorie Signage Results in Teens Purchasing Fewer Sugary Beverages

Effects of easily understandable calorie information continue after signage is removed.

    • October 16, 2014
A teenager drinks bottled water in North Carolina.

Princeton, N.J.—A new study reveals that adolescents who saw printed signs with easy-to-understand calorie information about sugar-sweetened beverages—including the amount of exercise required to burn off the calories in these beverages or the numbers of teaspoons of sugar in these beverages—were more likely to purchase a drink with fewer calories. Researchers also found that the purchasing behavior persisted for six weeks after the signs came down. The study was published online today by the American Journal of Public Health.

The signage caused the likelihood of buying a sugar-sweetened beverage to drop from 98 percent before the signage was displayed to 89 percent while the signs were posted, and the number of sugar-sweetened beverage calories purchased went from 203 to 184. Additionally, the likelihood of buying a sugar-sweetened beverage larger than 16 ounces dropped from 54 percent before the signs were displayed to 37 percent while the signs were posted. The reduction in calories purchased can be attributed to teens buying fewer sodas and sports drinks and more bottled water and diet soda.

The information conveyed by the signs proved to have a lasting effect. During a six-week period after the signs were removed, teens’ likelihood of buying a sugar-sweetened beverage dropped from 98 percent before the signs were posted to 91 percent, and the number of sugar-sweetened beverage calories purchased went from 203 to 178. Additionally, the likelihood of buying a sugar-sweetened beverage larger than 16 ounces in that six-week period after the signs were removed dropped from 54 percent before the signage was displayed to 37 percent.

The study, which was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its Healthy Eating Research program, was conducted in six corner stores located in low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods in Baltimore. The researchers used four randomly posted signs with caloric information: (1) absolute calories; (2) number of teaspoons of sugar in a sugar-sweetened beverage; and (3) number of minutes of running or (4) miles of walking necessary to burn off a sugar-sweetened beverage. Then they collected the purchase data of a sample of black adolescents who appeared to be between the ages of 12 and 18.

When compared with purchasing behaviors during times when there was no signage, the most effective sign was the one that told consumers they would have to walk five miles to burn off the sugary beverage calories.

“This study reinforces that when provided with understandable calorie information, black teenagers will make healthier beverage choices,” said Sara Bleich, PhD, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and lead author of the study. “After seeing the signs, these young consumers selected beverages for purchase that were smaller in volume or contained no added sugars.”

“Sugary beverages are a major source of excess calories in children’s diets, and lowering their consumption is a critical step in  reversing the nation’s epidemic of childhood obesity,” said Ginny Ehrlich, D. Ed., MPH, MS, director, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “The results of this study show that, when provided with easily understandable calorie information, black teenagers will choose a healthier beverage option. This is encouraging news because obesity rates are higher among black youth than white or Asian youth.”

This study builds on the results of a similar study published in 2011 led by the same research team, and funded by RWJF. In the earlier work, the researchers found that black teenagers purchased fewer sugary beverage calories when provided with easily understandable calorie information. However, this new study added to prior findings by more closely examining purchasing behaviors and whether those behaviors persisted after the signs were removed.

Sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened coffees and teas, add large numbers of calories to the diets of children and adults and are associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Increasing public awareness about healthier beverage options is seen as a way to influence consumers’ behavior to help prevent obesity and improve overall health.

To translate calories into a walking and running equivalent, researchers calculated that a 15-year-old weighing 100 pounds would need to replace sitting with running for 50 minutes or walking for five miles to burn off 250 calories from 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

For more than 40 years the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has worked to improve the health and health care of all Americans. We are striving to build a national Culture of Health that will enable all Americans to live longer, healthier lives now and for generations to come. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at www.rwjf.org/twitter or on Facebook at www.rwjf.org/facebook.

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Melissa Blair

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (609) 627-5937

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