Fruit-flavored drinks and toddler milks are two categories of sugar-sweetened drinks that, despite expert recommendations, are often purchased by parents. Although it is not advised to serve these products to young children, both drinks are marketed as beneficial and healthful. The purpose of this qualitative study was to understand parents’ perceptions of fruit-flavored drinks and toddler milks, knowledge of product ingredients, and how or if common marketing messages and other tactics contribute to misperceptions. Nine focus groups (N=50) were conducted in Hartford, CT and Washington DC with parents of children between the ages of 9-36 months. A convenience sample was used; participants were recruited through Facebook posts and flyers distributed through local organizations. During the focus groups, four unique concept sheets were distributed to the participants. These sheets were developed to correct common misperceptions regarding product ingredients, common claims, and marketing messages.  A moderator then facilitated a discussion about the concepts. A thematic analysis of the resulting qualitative data was then conducted using NVivo.  Five major themes were identified. The first theme was, “marketing messages [of fruit flavored-drinks and toddler milks] implied benefits for children”. For example, marketing implies toddler milk is better than milk and helps with transition from formula to milk. The second theme was, “confusion between product categories”. For example, some were unsure of the differences between fruit-flavored drinks and 100% juice. The third theme was, “cross-branding and product extensions” (i.e., toddler milks and infant formulas are offered by the same brands). The fourth theme was “pricing.” Toddler milk is cheaper than infant formula, for example. And finally, the last theme was “targeted marketing to children and/or parents”.  Examples of the latter included coupons sent to parents, product samples in the pediatrician’s office, and the use of bright colors to appeal to children.

Study strengths: This is one of a few studies that have examined the impact of marketing messages on parents’ misperceptions of toddler milks. Findings from this study revealed that there may be a benefit of counter marketing campaigns communicated through trusted sources to reduce the provision of these drinks to infants and toddlers. Additionally, the findings support the need for regulations to protect consumers from misleading product labeling and marketing practices.

Study limitations: The sample in this study was a convenience sample conducted in two cities, therefore the results are not generalizable. Quantitative study designs with representative samples are needed to confirm the findings reported here.

What this means for your practice: Within this study, parents mentioned healthcare providers as a trusted source for evidence-based information about fruit-flavored drinks and toddler milks. Taking the time during appointments to talk with parents/guardians about healthy drink choices can make a difference. If parents of young children have questions about nutrition choices for young children, you can refer them to the CDC’s website on infant and toddler nutrition.

Original citation: Fleming‐Milici, F., Phaneuf, L., & Harris, J. L. (2022). Marketing of sugar‐sweetened children’s drinks and parents’ misperceptions about benefits for young children. Maternal & Child Nutrition, e13338.

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