PURPOSE: This study examined how college students choose beverages and whether behavioral interventions might reduce their heavy consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. METHODS: From April to June 2010, 90 students participated in 12 focus groups at 6 colleges in Massachusetts and Louisiana. The study team undertook a group content analysis of the verbatim focus group transcripts using the immersion-crystallization method. RESULTS: The mean age of participants was 19 years. Fifty percent were white, and 47% were black. Several themes emerged in focus groups: taste is paramount; price is important but secondary; health and nutritional content of beverages are of limited interest; juice has a “health halo”; and water is consumed primarily for hydration. Students were often highly fixated on favorite sugar-sweetened beverages. Price was uniquely important for good-tasting beverages costing less than one dollar. Some studentsreported calorie content as important for food choices, but most had no awareness of beverage calorie content. Students’ negative perceptions of sugar-sweetened beverages focused largely on the “dangers” of sugar and chemicals in sodas. They expressed particular concern about soda’s corrosive chemical properties or diet soda causing cancer. The health halo for juice persisted even with some recognition of high sugar content. Students thought shocking educational messages would be necessary to get them to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. CONCLUSIONS: Among college students, taste and price were the most important factors in choosing beverages. Interventions using shocking visual images or providing low-cost or free water may conquer taste and brand preference to reduce sugar-sweetened beverage intake.
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