Best-selling ‘fruit’ drinks for kids deemed unhealthy in new study: ‘Parents tell me they’ve been tricked’

An eye-opening new study that looked at children’s popular sweetened fruit drinks found that they are often loaded with added sugar or contain artificial sweeteners (and in some cases, both). But most parents don’t realize this thanks to manufacturers’ advertising campaigns and packaging, which make these sweetened beverages appear to be healthy choices.

In the study, researchers at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity analyzed 34 popular kids’ drinks that contained low-calorie sweeteners and added sugars (such as high-fructose corn syrup and cane juice), as well as drinks without sweeteners, such as 100 percent juice drinks. The study revealed that, overall, 74 percent of children’s sweetened drinks contained low-calorie sweeteners, 65 percent had added sugars, and 38 percent contained both.

In fact, in 11 different children’s fruit drinks — “including many of the highest-selling brands, such as Capri Sun Juice Drink, Hawaiian Punch, Sunny D, and Minute Maid Lemonade,” per the study — a single serving contained more than 50 percent of the recommended amount of daily added sugar for children.

What’s more, although the majority of the kids’ fruit drinks had images of fruit on the label, most did not contain any fruit juice whatsoever. “Most of them didn’t have any juice,” Jennifer Harris, PhD, lead author of the study and director of marketing initiatives at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. She notes that even though 85 percent of the drinks showed fruit on the label, only 35 percent contained any juice at all. “I don’t think parents realize that,” she adds.

A new study found that many fruit drinks marketed to kids do not contain fruit at all. Several also contain artificial sweeteners. (Photo: Getty Images)
A new study found that many fruit drinks marketed to kids do not contain fruit at all. Several also contain artificial sweeteners. (Photo: Getty Images)

Harris says that there are a few “egregious” things going on when it comes to the marketing of these sweetened fruit beverages. “The packaging of the drinks seem to really be designed to make them seem like they’re healthier than they really are — pictures of fruit on the packages,” she says. “The sweetened drinks say things like, ‘Good source of vitamin C’ or ‘100 percent vitamin C.’ They say ‘less sugar than the leading juice’ or ‘less sugar than soda.’ I have parents tell me they’ve been tricked. When they bring them home and look at what’s in it, they can’t believe they bought it.”

How much sugar should kids be allowed?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that the maximum amount of added sugar that kids consume daily is 25 grams. And as Erica Domrose, a clinical dietitian in the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, tells Yahoo Lifestyle, the sugar that kids consume should primarily come from dairy, whole grains, and fruit.

What makes these sweetened fruit drinks deceiving is that, in some cases, the sugar content is lower than other typically sugary beverages, such as soda, because the manufacturers are using artificial sweeteners. “A lot of the products have brought down the sugar by adding the low-calorie sweeteners,” notes Harris. “So the median was about 16 grams of sugar in a single serving package, which still isn’t great.” Some have more — Harris points out that just six ounces of Minute Maid Lemonade contains 21 grams of sugar.

It’s hard to know how much artificial sweetener is in these drinks because, according to one study, “the FDA does not require manufacturers to report the actual amounts of sweeteners contained in foods and beverages.”

However, things will change starting on January 1, 2020, when the FDA’s update to the nutrition facts label goes into effect, which requires large brands with $10 million or more in sales to list added sugars on the label found on the back of all products. (Smaller brands have until 2021 to make these changes.)

But should kids be consuming artificial sweeteners in the first place?

Ideally, no, says Domrose. Although the FDA has approved six artificial sweeteners for use in food and deemed them “safe for consumption,” when it comes to children, “experts don’t recommend them because there’s no evidence that they’re safe or don’t have a long-term health impact,” says Harris. “So it’s risky.”

Beyond that, artificial sweeteners also make it that much harder for parents to get their kids to drink water — which Domrose says is “the best form of hydration” — and milk. Harris points out that drinks with artificial sweeteners are also “very sweet, so even though they don’t have calories, they make it really sweet and if a young child gets used to drinking something very sweet, it’s going to be very difficult to drink plain water and plain milk.”

How to choose healthier drinks

So what can parents do to make sure they're choosing healthy drinks for their kids? Check the label. Harris recommends looking for 100 percent juice on the front label. That said, “experts don’t recommend that children drink very much 100 percent juice,” she says. “A small amount is ok. What parents can do is just add a little bit of water to the juice to make it less sweet.”

Another option: drinks that are juice/water blends — in other words, watered-down juice — such as R.W. Knudson Family Sensible Sippers, Honest Kids, and Juicy Juice Splashers Organic.

Next, before buying kids’ fruit drinks, check to see how many grams of sugar they contain, keeping in mind that 25 grams is the maximum amount of added sugar that children should consume in a single day. Then, Domrose suggests, look at the ingredient list for added sugars (such as high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, or cane juice), as well as words like “aspartame,” “sucralose,” “stevia,” “saccharin,” “acesulfame,” and “neotame,” which are the names of artificial sweeteners.

Whenever possible, serve kids plain water or low-fat, unflavored milk. Domrose suggests adding cut up fruit to plain water for flavor.

“Parents say all the time you have to sort of be crazy about it if you don’t want your child to drink sugary beverages because they get it at friends’ houses, at birthday parties and daycare, and from grandparents,” says Harris. “But attitudes are changing and people are realizing it’s maybe not the best option for children.”

Harris adds: “But it’s important to know the companies are not helping parents in that respect. So you have to be diligent about what you’re buying.”

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