Americans confused about types of sugars in beverages

December 18, 2013

Key recommendations in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and USDA’s MyPlate are to reduce the intake of added sugars, particularly from sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), and drink water instead of “sugary” beverages. A study published in Nutrition Research shows that some Americans may not know how much and what kinds of sugar are in their beverages.

The goal of the study was to determine consumer knowledge, perceptions, and behaviors regarding sugars in beverages. The researchers hypothesized that consumers would have limited or inaccurate knowledge of the sugars in beverages and that their beverage consumption behaviors would not reflect their primary concerns related to sugars in beverages.

An online survey was completed by 3,361 adults, ages 18+, residing throughout the United States. The survey questioned participants about their diets including non-alcoholic beverage consumption and quizzed them on types and amounts of sugar found in various beverages. It also asked about use of food labels and general nutrition and health knowledge.

The researchers found that water was consumed in the highest amounts followed by (in descending amounts) other beverages (includes coffee and tea), added sugar beverages, milk, diet drinks, and 100% fruit juice and blends. The majority of participants—96%—identified regular soft drinks as sugary. But only three quarters of them knew soft drinks contain added sugar. In addition, more than half of participants referred to fruit drinks, fruit cocktails, and sports drinks as sugary. About 60% correctly reported that fruit drinks and sports drinks contain added sugar, and half knew cranberry juice cocktail contains added sugar.

Some participants misidentified the types of sugars in beverages, particularly with respect to milk and 100% fruit juices. Less than one quarter correctly indicated that milk has natural sugar called lactose. Generally, beverage choices were consistent with stated concerns about total, added, or natural sugars; however, less than 40% of participants identified added sugars as a primary concern when choosing beverages despite public health recommendations to reduce the intake of added sugars and SSBs.

The findings suggest there may be a considerable level of consumer misunderstanding or confusion about the types of sugars in beverages. More consumer research and education is needed with the goal of helping consumers make more informed and healthful beverage choices.