An initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Unhealthy Drinks Dominate Children’s Drink Sales

Food marketing to children


January 23rd, 2020


Learn the FACTS about Children’s drinks

With so many children’s drinks available in the marketplace, parents are often left wondering which are healthy and which are not. A recent Rudd Center FACTS report found that the majority of children’s drinks sold in 2018 were sweetened fruit drinks and flavored waters with added sugars and/or low-calorie sweeteners. Looking at the front of the packages, many sugary children’s drinks appear to be healthy choices, with images of fruit and nutrition-related claims, but none meet expert recommendations for drinks that should be served to children under age 14.

We recently spoke to food marketing researchers, Dr. Jennifer Harris and Dr. Fran Fleming-Milici of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, to learn more about this report.


The Rudd Center released its Children’s Drink FACTS report last fall. Could you give us a short overview of this report? What are some key findings?

This report assessed the sales, nutrition and marketing of children’s drinks, drinks that were marketed directly to children or to parents as drinks to serve to children. We found that fruit drinks and flavored waters that contain added sugars and/or low-calorie sweeteners accounted for 62% of the total sales of children’s drinks in 2018. Only 38% of children’s drink sales were for healthier, unsweetened drinks, such as 100% juice or juice/water blends.

Marketing plays a big part in what kids want to drink. In 2018, companies spent $20.7 million advertising children’s drinks with added sugars. When you see numbers like that, it’s no surprise that children continue to consume sugary drinks. This is a problem. Consumption of these drinks leads to long-term health risks, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and dental decay.

Companies do offer healthier options for children, such as juice/water blends with no added sugars or low-calorie sweeteners, and companies do advertise some of these products to parents and children. However, companies continue to spend more on TV advertising of sweetened drinks than they spend on TV advertising of healthier drinks that meet expert recommendations. Given this difference in ad spending, it isn’t surprising that in 2018 children saw twice as many TV ads for sweetened children’s drinks as they did for drinks without added sweeteners.

We also found similar brand names, pictures of fruit, and nutrition claims, such as “good source of Vitamin C” or “no high fructose corn syrup,” on both sweetened fruit drinks and flavored waters and on healthier drinks. For example, images of fruit appeared on almost all of children’s sweetened drink packages (regardless of whether the product contained any fruit juice). This makes it really challenging for parents to know which drinks are healthy options for their children.

Also, about three-quarters of children’s sweetened drinks included low-calorie sweeteners such as sucralose and acesulfame potassium, the same sweeteners found in diet soda, but the front of the packages did not mention this. Instead, these drinks were often promoted as “low sugar” or “less sugar.” These claims appeal to parents who care about reducing sugar in their child’s diet, but the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents do not provide products with nonnutritive sweeteners to children.

Overall, the lack of transparency about ingredients in children’s drinks, coupled with confusing claims and extensive marketing of sweetened drinks, is a problem. Parents should be able to easily find and identify a healthy drink for their child.


This report came on the heels of some of the foremost experts on children’s health releasing a consensus statement with recommendations for what young children should and should not drink. How does this report build on those recommendations?

It’s fitting that our report came out just weeks after the consensus statement, which was a real game-changer for the field. The consensus statement recommends that water and plain milk are the go-to drinks for young kids; drinks with added sugars or low-calorie sweeteners are not recommended for children under the age of 5. Our report shows that not one of the 34 top-selling sweetened children’s drinks met expert recommendations for healthier drinks. The consensus statement should be a call to action for companies to reconsider the nutrition content of their products and their marketing strategies. When it comes to children’s drinks, companies should prioritize children’s health over profits.


How about brands advertising directly to children, or targeted marketing to Hispanic and African-American children? What does the report say about that?

Some companies continue to advertise sweetened drinks directly to children. For example, Kraft Heinz advertised two sweetened drinks—Kool-Aid Jammers and Capri Sun Roarin’ Waters—on children’s TV programming. Two companies, Kraft Heinz and Coca-Cola, were responsible for 80% of TV ads for sweetened drinks that children under 12 years old viewed in 2018.

In previous Rudd Center Targeted Marketing reports, we found that food companies target Black and Hispanic youth with advertising for their least healthy products, including sugary drinks, candy, fast food, and snacks. This marketing contributes to health disparities affecting youth in communities of color. In this report, a few children’s drink brands targeted their advertising to Hispanic and African-American youth and parents. For example, Black children saw more than twice as many TV ads for Minute Maid Lemonade as White children saw. Sunny D and Capri Sun also advertised on Spanish-language TV, where they devoted a significant amount (25%) of their TV advertising spending.


What are some recommendations in your report?

Our report includes recommendations for not only food and beverage companies, but also for policymakers, regulatory agencies, and media companies to help parents easily identify healthier children’s drinks. A few of our top recommendations include:

~Beverage manufacturers should clearly indicate that products contain added sugars and/or low-calorie sweeteners and the percent juice content on the front of children’s drink packages.

~The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI)—the voluntary, industry self-regulatory program—should establish nutrition standards that conform with health expert recommendations. Specifically, drinks with added sugars and/or low-calorie sweeteners should not be advertised directly to children.

~The U.S. Food and Drug Administration could require that products with nutrition-related claims on packages meet minimum nutrition standards and prohibit the use of fruit and vegetable images on drink product packages that contain little or no juice.

~State and local taxes on sugary drinks should include children’s fruit drinks and flavored waters to raise the price and discourage purchases.

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