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Want to Steer Youths Toward Water? Explain Calories in Sugary Drinks

Students are more inclined to drink water over sugar-sweetened drinks if provided with clear, easy-to-understand information about the caloric content in those sugary drinks, according to a new study published online today in the American Journal of Public Health.

The teens were nearly twice as likely to buy nonsugar-sweetened drinks after learning that sugary beverages contained roughly 10 percent of their daily expected calories, or would require 50 minutes of physical activity to burn off, the study found.

"People generally underestimate the number of calories in the foods they consume," write the study's authors.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health collected data from 1,600 beverage sales to black youths, ages 12 to 18, from four corner stores in a predominantly low-income, black neighborhood in Baltimore. For 400 of those sales, the researchers provided no extra nutritional information about the beverages being purchased, to set a baseline.

In the other 1,200 sales, the researchers randomly posted signs in the stores with one of three types of information (for 400 sales each):

• "Did you know that a bottle of soda or fruit juice has about 250 calories?" (Dubbed "absolute caloric count" in the study.)

• "Did you know that a bottle of soda or fruit juice has about 10 percent of your daily calories?" (Called "percentage of total recommended daily intake.")

• "Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?" (Referred to as "physical activity requirement.")

Of the three types of information provided, the physical-activity requirement had the most dramatic effect on the teens in the study. They were half as likely to buy sugar-sweetened beverages after being presented with physical activity information, according to the study.

This came as little surprise to the researchers, who suggested in the background of the study that "providing consumers with relative caloric information may be more desirable than providing them with absolute caloric information," since the data would require a lower amount of interpretation.

Overall, presenting any calorie information to the youths in the study reduced the odds of them purchasing sugar-sweetened beverages by roughly 40 percent.

"This study showed that black teenagers will use calorie information, especially when presented in an easy-to-understand format, such as a physical-activity equivalent, to make healthier choices when it comes to buying a drink at the local corner store," said Sara Bleich, one of the study's co-authors and assistant professor with the Bloomberg School's Department of Health Policy and Management, in a statement. "Most consumers underestimate the number of calories in a can of soda, and they often do not realize that such calories can add up quickly."

Given that the American Academy of Pediatrics released a study earlier this year suggesting that virtually all student-athletes should be turning to water instead of energy drinks, this new study could have a profound impact on the ways coaches deliver that message to their players.

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