Strategies to limit sugary drinks could backfire

Businesses seem to have found ways around the increasing limits placed on sugary beverages.
By Amy Wallace  |  April 11, 2017 at 9:49 AM
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April 11 (UPI) -- New research suggests businesses are enacting strategies like offering smaller cup sizes with free refills to allow them to get around limits on sugary drinks.

Some governments and municipalities have enacted regulations limiting the size and amount of sugary drinks sold, such as New York City did in 2012 when the Board of Health restricted restaurants and food outlets to 16-ounce maximum serving sizes for beverages. The regulation was eventually overturned after public debate and outcry.

The study found businesses are using tactics to circumvent the limits placed on sugary drinks, which may lead to even more sugar consumption.

"Our research provides insight into the effectiveness of a portion limit policy," Leslie John, a behavior scientist at Harvard Business School, said in a press release. "We identify one circumstance -- bundling -- where the reduction in purchasing of sugar-sweetened beverages is likely to be realized, and another -- refills -- where the policy can in certain cases have an unintended consequence of increasing consumption."

Researchers conducted experiments with 623 participants to test whether people prefer a single larger size drink or two smaller size drinks. Participants had the opportunity to buy either a medium or large iced tea or lemonade while completing other tasks. The medium size was always served in a 16-ounce cup, but the large was sometimes offered in a 24-ounce cup or two 12-ounce cups.

The results of the experiment showed bundling seemed to reduce participants' interest in buying the larger option. Participants were less likely to buy a large drink when it was bundled than when it was presented as one serving.

Researchers conducted a second experiment where they presented a drink option to another group of 470 people, offering a single large 24-ounce drink or a 16-ounce drink with free refills. Participants were just as likely to buy a large single serving as they were a smaller serving with free refills.

Participants who chose the drinks with smaller sizes but with free refills ended up consuming more overall, 44 percent more calories compared to those who had a larger single drink.

"Taken together, these results suggest that this method of complying with a sugary-drink portion limit could have the perverse effect of increasing consumption," researchers stated. "However, requiring the participants to stand up and walk a tiny distance to obtain their refills helped to curb it."

The study was published in Psychological Science.

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