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‘100% Vitamin C’ marketing claims increase appeal of sugary fruit drinks


March 24, 2020

This piece was originally published by the Gillings School of Global Public Health

Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) are a major factor in the obesity epidemic among both children and adults. Fruit-flavored drinks with added sugar (“fruit drinks”) are by far the most popular SSB among children.

Dr. Anna Grummon

Dr. Anna Grummon

Dr. Lindsey Smith Taillie

Dr. Lindsey Smith Taillie

Dr. Marissa Hall

Dr. Marissa Hall

In a new study published in Preventative Medicine, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill examined how adding vitamin claims, fruit images and health warnings to the labels of fruit drinks affected consumers’ perceptions.

Dr. Allison Lazard

Dr. Allison Lazard

Jennifer Mendel

Jennifer Mendel

Marissa Hall, PhD, assistant professor of health behavior at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and a Faculty Fellow at the Carolina Population Center, was first author of the study. Other authors from UNC include senior author Lindsey Smith Taillie, PhD, with the Gillings School’s nutrition department and the Carolina Population Center; Allison Lazard, PhD, of the Hussman School of Media and Journalism and the Lineberger Center; Jennifer Mendel, MPH, of the Lineberger Center; and Anna Grummon, PhD, a recent graduate of the Gillings School’s health behavior department and postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies.

In a series of three studies surveying a total of 3,815 adults, online participants viewed images of fruit drinks with different combinations of a “100% vitamin C” claim, a fruit image or a health warning. On average, across the three studies, participants who saw the vitamin C claim believed the drink was healthier than those who did not see the claim; they also were more interested in consuming the drink. The health warning had the opposite effect, with participants feeling the drink was less healthy and having less desire to consume it. The fruit image had no effect on either measure.

“While vitamin C claims are not factually inaccurate, they are unnecessary,” said Taillie. “In fact, the FDA’s revised and recently implemented Nutrition Facts Label no longer makes reporting of Vitamin C content in products mandatory, because deficiencies of this nutrient are so uncommon.”

Together, the studies support policies to restrict marketing and require health warnings on sugar-sweetened beverage packaging.

“Given the strong link between sugary drinks and a host of health problems, we need policy action now — especially for sugary fruit drinks that seem much healthier than they are,” Hall said. “These studies suggest that lawmakers and advocates should simultaneously pursue two policy strategies: banning potentially misleading claims and requiring health warnings on sugary drink packaging.”