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Children risk health as sports drinks’ marketing is misunderstood

A new survey conducted by a team from Cardiff Metropolitan University and Cardiff University reveals that a high proportion of 12-14 year olds are consuming high sugar, low pH sports drinks, despite knowledge of their health effects.

Published today in the British Dental Journal, the survey looked at 160 children in four schools across South Wales and concluded that children are using sports drinks attracted by their brand logo. The children believed that these drinks were being marketed at everybody, including their age group, despite these drinks being formulated and proven effective only in adult, elite athletes.

The study shows that:

·         89% of school children are consuming sports drinks with 68% drinking them regularly (1-7 times per week) despite the fact that only 17% think sports drinks are the 'best' option when undertaking exercise.

·         73% of children correctly identified water, only 9% milk as suitable to be consumed when exercising.

·         45.9% of the children surveyed believed that sports drinks were aimed at everyone, irrespective of age or activity level, whilst a further third of children viewed teenagers as the target market.

In supermarkets and shops, sports drinks are sold alongside other sugar sweetened beverages. This is misleading children and parents by indicating that they are meant for use by everyone - a message that this survey indicates has been taken on board by these young consumers. However, these products are proven only to be effective for use by elite adult athletes.

·         The main brand logos (Lucozade Sport, Powerade and Gatorade) were well recognised by over 60% of the children surveyed.

·         Those that recognised the brands were more likely to drink them.

Generally the children were aware of the possible oral health effects of these products, although this did not deter them from consuming sports drinks:

  • 65% of the children acknowledged sports drinks could lead to tooth decay,
  • 49% that they may erode teeth,
  • 48% that they may stain teeth.

Whilst less than half the children questioned claimed to read the nutritional labels on the product these children were more likely to consume fewer sports drinks. 

The study suggests that the dental profession needs to continue to educate children and parents about the dental and wider health implications of sports drinks, including their appropriate use and that the dental profession needs to work with the food industry on more appropriate labelling, marketing and reformulation of these products.

Ruth Fairchild , Registered Nutritionist and senior lecturer in Food Science and Nutrition at Cardiff Metropolitan University, said: "The purpose of sports drinks are being misunderstood and this study clearly shows evidence of high school age children being attracted to these high sugar and low pH level drinks, leading to an increased risk of dental cavities, enamel erosion and obesity.

"There are indications that clearer labelling and encouraging children to read the labels could help reduce the intake of these highly sweetened, palatable drinks.  Sports drinks, like all sugar sweetened beverages can be harmful if consumed in large amounts in terms of oral and wider public health including obesity and other related health conditions".

Maria Morgan, Senior Lecturer at Cardiff University said "Health agencies and lobby groups like the British Association for the Study of Community Dentistry1 ,  Faculty of Sport and Exercise Medicine UK2 and Action on Sugar3  need to work with the food industry to help reformulate products and ensure that marketing is appropriate"

The study – Knowledge of and attitudes to sports drinks of adolescents living in South Wales UK  – is published in the British Dental Journal.

Knowledge of and attitudes to sports drinks of adolescents living in South Wales UK. Br Dent J 2017; 222. RM Fairchild1 BSc (Hons), RNutr, PhD, D Broughton2 BDS (hons), MZ Morgan2 BSc (Hons), PGCE, MPH, MPhil, FFPH. 1Cardiff Metropolitan University, Department of Healthcare and Food. 2Applied Clinical Research and Public Health, College of Biomedical and Life Sciences, Cardiff University, School of Dentistry.