Study evaluates added sugars in packaged beverages, finds black and low-income families most at risk

June 7, 2017

A new study lays the groundwork for monitoring the sugar content of prepackaged sweetened beverages and the purchases of those beverages over time. Such data will provide important baseline measurements at the point a planned federal requirement to include “added sugars” on nutritional labeling goes into effect in July 2018.

Dr. Shu Wen Ng

Dr. Shu Wen Ng

Led by Shu Wen Ng, PhD,  research associate professor of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, the study was published online June 7 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Ng and colleagues estimated amounts of sugar added to beverages and determined, prior to the label changes, which households are most at risk for too much sugar intake. Their efforts will allow for future monitoring of the ways manufacturers may reformulate their products to lower added sugar content in light of the planned changes in labeling and also will provide a means of comparison for consumers’ resultant exposure to added sugars.

Nonalcoholic packaged beverages alone, Ng and colleagues determined, account for more than 12 grams per person per day of added sugars, as purchased by more than 110,000 nationally representative United States households in 2007-2012. These figures show that between 32 percent and 48 percent of the calories from such beverages come from added sugars.

The researchers also found that non-Hispanic black households and households with lower incomes consume significantly higher amounts of added sugars from beverages than do non-Hispanic white and higher-income households.

Added sugars (including fruit juice concentrates) are in many food and beverage products, but when examining only nonalcoholic packaged beverages (excluding fountain drinks and foods), 32 percent to 35 percent of the more than 160,000 packaged beverages reportedly purchased by United States households between 2007 and 2012 contain added sugars.

More than 99 percent of caloric sodas and energy drinks – and 95 percent of sports drinks, sweetened milks and fruit-flavored drinks – contained added sugar. More surprisingly, more than 82 percent of fruit and vegetable juice drinks were sweetened with sugar, as were more than 76 percent of ready-to-drink coffees and teas.

As manufacturers change their products to lower sugar content, there is an increasing trend to replace sugar with low- or no-calorie sweeteners. Additional study is needed, said Ng and colleagues, to determine the impact of these sweeteners in the food supply.

“To our knowledge, these are the first estimates of the amounts and proportions of added sugars in packaged beverages purchased by U.S. households,” Ng said, “and the numbers show the large disparities that exist across certain subpopulations. It is unclear whether the updated FDA labeling requirements will encourage manufacturers to reduce the amounts of added sugar in their products, educate consumers to choose products with less added sugar, and change the overall levels and subpopulation disparities. This work will serve as an important baseline for monitoring changes in the future.”

Co-authors are Jessica D. Ostrowski, MPH, RD, research assistant, and Kuo-ping Li, PhD, programmer analyst, both at UNC’s Carolina Population Center.

The authors thank the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Institutes of Health for financial support.


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Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu