Think giving your kids juice is better than soda? Think again

New guidelines confirm what dietitians have been saying for years: Juice is full of sugar and it’s not a healthy way for kids to hydrate.

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Juice boxes are easy to throw into a lunch bag, and it’s hard to find a birthday party that doesn’t serve them. Parents often offer kids sippy cups of fruit juice with a snack or use them to hold kids over till dinner. Most have heard that juice isn’t the best for kids, but at least it’s better than pop, right?

Unfortunately it’s really not, say the experts. “It’s essentially sugar water—sometimes with vitamins in it,” says Rachel Freeman, a registered dietitian who works in paediatrics in a private practice in Burlington, Ont., and at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton. She tells parents that giving kids juice is almost the same as giving them pop in terms of the sugar content and cavity-causing effects.

For years, dietitians have been telling parents that juice isn’t good for kids, and now the formal guidelines are beginning to catch up. Today, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced it’s changing its guidelines on juice, recommending that no child under one year old drink juice at all and limiting older kids’ consumption to very small quantities. The message is clear: Juice is not healthy.

Freeman isn’t surprised. She says dietitians have been looking to Health Canada for years to change its policy on juice. She expects Canada’s Food Guide will disqualify juice from its current classification as a fruit or vegetable serving very soon.

In the US, the new recommendations are that toddlers ages one to three have no more than four ounces (or half a cup) a day, and kids ages four to six have no more than six ounces (or ¾ cup max) a day. Older kids can have up to one cup. Keep in mind that the cups in your house likely hold more than one cup, and sippy cups, bottles or juice boxes are not recommended at all because they let kids sip all day, slowly exposing their teeth to sugar and acid for hours on end and promoting the development of cavities. Drinking juice before bedtime is also discouraged because it can lead to cavities.

Juice should be viewed as a sugary treat, but that message hasn’t really gotten through yet. “Most kids drink juice,” says Freeman, explaining that parents send it in lunches, offer it at snack times and generally let kids sip it on the regular. She’s even noticed an alarming trend of juices being marketed toward babies. The AAP reports that children ages two to 18 consume nearly half their fruit intake as juice. 

Freeman says juice is “absolutely not recommended. It’s terrible for their developing teeth; it’s not good for nutrition.” In addition to the problems with cavities, sipping on liquid calories can lead to issues with a child’s weight. Freeman explains that kids are not always satiated by the calories that come from juice, which can lead them to consume more calories. Karen Balko, a registered dietitian at Kindercare Pediatrics in Toronto, agrees. “Liquid calories are contributing to the obesity epidemic,” she says. She explains that when a child drinks a glass of apple juice, for example, he might down as much sugar as if he had consumed three or four apples, but he won’t get the fibre or flavonoids that would come with eating the full flesh and skin of the apple. Because of that, “it doesn’t help curb appetite,” she says.

Another important consideration is how we’re teaching kids to enjoy food. Freeman recommends serving foods in their whole form as often as possible from an early age to get kids used to the tastes and textures of real fruits and vegetables. “If the only time you have broccoli is when it’s mashed up with apple sauce, you may never learn to appreciate the taste of broccoli. It inhibits their learning to like food.”

If your kids are among those drinking juice, don’t feel too bad. Even the AAP admits there have been mixed messages. “Historically, fruit juice was recommended by paediatricians as a source of vitamin C and as an extra source of water for healthy infants and young children as their diets expanded to include solid foods,” writes the organization. Now, as many adults have jumped on the cold-pressed juice trend, the thinking is that juices must be healthy, right? They’re not. “Juice is pure sugar,” says Balko. “There’s no fibre in it, so when you drink it, you’re getting a lot of sugar all at once.”

Instead of juice, milk and water are healthier ways to help kids hydrate. Whole fruits and vegetables are recommended to provide vitamins and minerals, and to protect against things like heart disease and cancer. “Having water as the main form of fluid teaches kids to get their nourishment from whole foods,” says Balko. The AAP recommends kids ages one to four get about one cup of whole fruits per day (and no, fruit pouches aren’t necessarily a good substitute).

Both Freeman and Balko agree that since parents control what food comes into the house, cutting off kids’ juice supply shouldn’t be a problem. But, if your little one is really hooked on the sweet stuff and refusing water, diluting juice with 50 percent water and continuing to increase the water will help wean them off over the course of a few weeks.

Balko also recommends serving water infused with berries or cucumber slices. “You’re still getting the flavour, but you’re not getting 20 cubes of sugar,” she says. “The ultimate goal is zero juice.”

Read more:
Childhood obesity: Sizing up our kids
My family quit sugar: How we survived cutting out the sweet stuff

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