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Play Every Day Blog > Posts > Want to buy a healthier drink? The claims on the front label don't always match the facts on the back


August 23
Want to buy a healthier drink? The claims on the front label don't always match the facts on the back

AUGUST 23, 2022 — Want to improve your chances of going to the store and buying a healthy drink? Spend more time reading the back of the label than the front. 

When walking the aisles in a grocery store, all we can see is the front of packaging for foods and drinks. The front labels don’t always have the facts, and instead are likely to show images and words that imply the drink is healthier than it is:

  • The drink includes natural flavors.
  • It has 100% Vitamin C.
  • The front label shows pictures of fruits and vegetables that aren’t actually in the drink. 
Organic cranberry raspberry drink - 100% vitamin C
Look for images or words on front labels that may imply a drink is healthier than it is.

We shop with the best of intentions, but the front of labels can mislead us. Families buy certain drinks because they believe those drinks are healthy based on words or images they see on the labels. Many times, those drinks actually have high amounts of added sugar. Serving these drinks to kids, often every day, can lead to health problems during childhood and later.

In 2022, lead authors from the Harvard, Johns Hopkins and University of North Carolina Schools of Public Health published a study that showed most fruit drinks and flavored waters purchased by families with children ages 5 and younger included words or images on the front labels “that may lead consumers to believe the beverages are healthy and natural.”

It’s not a common practice for all of us to turn those drinks around (about 40% of Americans say they don’t look at the back label). Adding that step in the store, however, will reveal more about a food or drink. The Nutrition Facts label on the back of a drink gives the true list of ingredients and the amount of added sugar — which can be just as much for a fruit drink as a soda.

“Alaska’s Play Every Day campaign has been creating messages to help Alaska parents spot these misleading words and pictures on sugary drinks and then pick healthier drinks for their families, like water and plain milk,” said Katie Reilly, program manager of Alaska’s Physical Activity and Nutrition Program. “A survey of Alaska mothers shows that about 1 out of 3 preschoolers drinks some type of a sweetened beverage every day. Cutting back on added sugar helps kids prevent cavities and unhealthy weight gain during their early years and type 2 diabetes and heart disease as they grow up.”

Most fruit drink labels have claims that could be misleading

Alaska parents say sweetened fruits drinks are a common type of drink they serve their young children. That includes drinks sold as sweetened powdered mixes or liquids in boxes, bottles, cartons or jugs. The Play Every Day campaign has been creating and sharing messages about these fruit drinks to help parents better understand and spot them in stores, and then choose healthier drinks like water or plain milk instead.

Here’s what the earlier-mentioned 2022 study showed after the Schools of Public Health examined claims and images on the front labels of drinks bought by hundreds of households with children ages 5 and younger:

  • Most fruit drinks (73%) made claims about nutrients that could be misleading. One of the most common claims was that the drink contained some amount of Vitamin C.
  • Almost half of fruit drinks (44%) included images or text on the front label that appealed to children.
  • Almost half of fruit drinks (47%) included claims like “contains juice” or “made with whole fruit.”
  • Almost all fruit drinks (94%) showed a picture of a fruit or vegetable on the front label. Most of these drinks, however, did not have fruit or vegetable juice or juice concentrate as a first or second main ingredient.

“Strikingly, 40% of fruit drinks and 88% of flavored waters depicted a fruit/vegetable on the (front of the label) that was not included at all in the ingredient list as a juice or concentrate,” the study said.

Better health comes when you cut back on added sugar

Sugary drinks of all kinds are the leading source of added sugar for most people’s diets – regardless of their age. Limiting added sugar in drinks and foods can improve health, which is why many health organizations recommend cutting back on sugar. 

Pediatricians, pediatric dentists, and dietitians agree sugary drinks aren’t recommended for children ages 5 and younger. For the best health, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend children younger than 2 have foods and drinks without any added sugar. The healthiest drinks for children ages 1 and older are water, plain white milk or fortified unsweetened soy milk.

These national guidelines also recommend that older children and adults limit added sugar to a small amount — less than 10 percent of the total calories they consume every day. That means an adult consuming 2,000 calories a day should limit daily added sugar to 200 calories or 50 grams of sugar —which is the same as 12 ½ teaspoons of sugar.

“You can drink 12 1/2 teaspoons of sugar very quickly,” Reilly said. “Just one sugary drink, like a 20-ounce bottle of soda or a fruit drink, can have about 16 teaspoons of added sugar. That’s more sugar than is recommended in an entire day for most of us. Checking the backs of labels and looking for the amount of added sugar can help us choose drinks and foods with no or low amounts of sugar.”

Nutrition facts - look for added sugars under the total carbohydrates heading
Choose foods and drinks without added sweeteners. You’ll know that’s the case if the “Includes Added Sugars” line says 0 grams.