Graphic warning labels ‘most effective’ in reducing consumers’ tendencies to buy sugar-sweetened beverages

By Tingmin Koe

- Last updated on GMT

Researchers found out that graphic warning labels can affect consumers' buying decision.  ©Getty Images
Researchers found out that graphic warning labels can affect consumers' buying decision. ©Getty Images
Front-of-pack (FOP) labels with graphic warnings are the most effective in reducing intended sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) purchases, according to researchers from Australia.

They argue that labels showing decayed teeth and warning text are able to reduce the number of SSB consumers by 36%. 

The research conducted by the Global Obesity Centre, Monash University Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food, and New South Wales Ministry of Health recruited 994 participants aged between 18 and 35 last year.

They aimed to find out the ability of graphics and text warnings in deterring consumers from buying SSBs.

SSBs refer to any non-alcoholic drink with added sugar including soft drinks, flavoured waters, energy drinks, iced tea and fruit drinks (with added sugar).

The participants were divided into five groups. The control group was only presented with the images of the drinks, while the remaining four groups were presented with different types of warning labels along with images of the drinks.

Warnings labels included: 1) a picture of decayed teeth with warning text saying that the drinks will contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay; 2) the same warning text without the picture of decayed teeth; 3) warning text on the amount of sugar added to the drink with a generic picture of sugar cubes; and 4) a Health Star Rating (HSR) label.

Through an online survey, the participants were supposed to choose a drink that they would buy.

It was found that participants who were exposed to both graphic and text warnings were least likely to buy an SSB. Only 28% of them will choose an SSB, as compared to the control group, where 64% of them will choose an SSB.  

Besides warning graphics and text, the other labelling were also shown to influence consumers’ choice, albeit to a lower extent.

For HSR or sugar information or text warning labels, the percentage of participants who would buy an SSB stood at 44%, 46% and 47% respectively.

The researchers concluded that “the graphic warning label (containing a picture of dental caries) was the most effective at reducing intended choice of a SSB compared to both the control group and the other label groups, reducing the proportion of respondents who indicated they would choose a SSB from almost 2 in 3 to just over one quarter.”

Label raises health awareness

The study also suggested that the warning labels will raise the health awareness of the participants, influencing them to consider the healthiness of the drink, before making the decision to buy the product.

For instance, 37% and 36% of participants who were exposed to the graphic warning and sugar information label said they considered the healthiness of the drink when making their selection. This figure was slightly lower at 27% for the control group.

On the other hand, 36% of the participants who were exposed to drinks labelled with HSR had chosen a drink with HSR label. HSR refers to the healthiness level of the drink, the higher the ratings, the healthier the drink.

For the control group, only 16% of the participants had chosen a drink with HSR.


Out of the four types of warning labelling, the HSR is the only existing FOP label in the Australian market, introduced by the government in 2014.

As evident from this study, the researchers believe that “HSR may be an effective and feasible strategy to reduce SSB consumption in Australia and New Zealand.”

They expect that the usage of the HSR will increase, as the star rating for more products is available via a mobile phone application/website, and has recently been incorporated in healthy food provision policies for schools and health facilities in parts of Australia.

However, as for the other three types of labelling, researchers noted that it will be important to test them in a variety of real world settings to further estimate their potential for decreasing SSB consumption.

The researchers also pointed out there is a potential of desirability bias in this study as participants may have selected a non-SSB if they perceived that to be what the researchers would like them to do. 

Source: Appetite

DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2018.05.149

“The effect of sugar-sweetened beverage front-of-pack labels on drink selection, health knowledge and awareness: An online randomised controlled trial.”

Authors: Natassja Billich, et al

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