Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its guidelines on fruit juice, cautioning parents against serving the drink to their babies for at least one year.
“Parents may perceive fruit juice as healthy, but it is not a good substitute for fresh fruit and just packs in more sugar and calories,” statement co-author Melvin B. Heyman wrote. “Small amounts in moderation are fine for older kids, but are absolutely unnecessary for children under 1.”
We spoke to Emory University pediatrics professor Jean Welsh, whose primary focus is the role of diet, specifically sugar intake, on human health risk, to learn more.
Misconceptions and risks of fruit juice
“Fruit juice definitely has a healthy halo that isn’t justified in the current food environment,” Welsh told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In today’s food climate, overconsumption of calories is of greater concern than having access to enough, which was the case only a few generations ago.”
For years, whole fruit and fruit juice were perceived as equally healthy, but studies have since shown associations between fruit juice and increased risk of dental caries, obesity, diabetes, liver disease and heart disease.
The United States has the highest rate of childhood obesity in the world at nearly 13 percent — and it’s climbing, according to researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, who documented data on 68.5 million people in 195 countries and territories from 1980 to 2015.
Sugary beverages like fruit juice are part of the problem, scientists noted.
“They’re high in calories, calories that we tend not to recognize the same way we do the calories we get in food,” Welsh said, which can easily lead to overeating and increased risk of obesity. “The main ingredients of fruit juice, sugar and water, are essentially the same as those in sugar-sweetened beverages. Our bodies process the added sugar in sugar-sweetened beverages and the natural sugars in fruit juice the same way.”
Yet according to a study from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics last year, almost two-thirds of children in the U.S. consumed at least one sugary beverage every day, with about 30 percent consuming at least two, between 2011 and 2014.
That’s more than 10 percent of the recommended total daily calorie intake for children. Current dietary guidelines suggest that less than 10 percent of your daily calories come from added sugars. The World Health Organization advises that the naturally occurring sugars in fruit juice be included in this 10 percent limit.
“While older children tend to drink more sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages, young children are drinking a lot of fruit juice,” Welsh said. “When young children consume a lot of their calories as juice, it leaves less room and they tend to be less interested in eating a variety of foods and textures which is important for a healthy diet over the long-term.”
Welsh recently collaborated with several other researchers to review the evidence of the health risks linked to children's added sugar intake for the American Heart Association, concluding that parents should limit children’s intake of added sugars to no more than about 6 teaspoons (or 100 calories) per day — and sugary drinks to 8 ounces per week.
She’s also currently researching whether reducing added sugar intake in children reduces their risk of liver disease and whether the impact of higher sugary beverage consumption among adults influences their risk of dying from heart disease.
Lipids are fats found in your blood and tissues, used by your body as energy. But high lipid levels, specifically pertaining to low-density lipoprotein (or bad cholesterol), greatly increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. And according to the CDC, heart disease is the number one cause of death for both men and women in the United States.
Current guidelines and recommendations
As aforementioned, parents should limit children’s intake of added sugars to no more than about 6 teaspoons (or 100 calories) per day − and sugary drinks to 8 ounces per week, per current dietary guidelines for children.
The AAP also suggests the following restrictions on fruit juice consumption by age:
For children under age 1: Avoid fruit juice.
For children ages one to three years old: Limit fruit juice consumption to no more than 4 ounces each day.
For children ages four to six years of age: Limit fruit juice consumption to 4 to 6 ounces each day.
Alternatives to fruit juice
Instead of fruit juice, parents should encourage whole fruits, Welsh said. Whole fruits provide the same vitamins and minerals and also provide fiber, which Welsh said is known to help with digestion and “may play a role in maintaining a healthy balance of calorie intake relative to the amount needed.”
Whole fruits also appear to help curb overconsumption of calories.
U.S. dietary guidelines recommend at least half of fruit servings come from whole fruit.
According to Welsh, some alternatives to fruit juice include
water, unsweetened seltzer water or milk, which is a good source of calcium and other nutrients important for children.
Strong4Life.com lists some tips for making drinking water a little more fun.
But in the end, it’s always crucial to keep track of sugars per serving, Welsh warned. These figures can be found on a product’s nutrition facts panel (typically on the back).