The verdict is out: If children in the U.S. are to be healthier, they need to stop drinking sugary beverages. While most parents know this health advice refers to soda and energy drinks, they don’t always realize experts include juices in that recommendation as well.
After all, juice–especially fruit juice–has been marketed as a healthy beverage option because it comes from healthy food sources.
Almost half of all parents in a recent study considered flavored water to be healthy, with more than 25 percent of parents also including juice and sports drinks on their healthy option list. While a surprising number of parents overall felt certain sugary beverages were okay, minority parents were the most likely to consider a sugary beverage as a healthy beverage choice for their child. This presents a particular nutritional challenge for doctors among the Hispanic community.
“Although most parents know that soda is not good for children, many still believe that other sugary drinks are healthy,” said Jennifer Harris, study author in a University of Connecticut statement. “The labeling and marketing for these products imply that they are nutritious, and these misperceptions may explain why so many parents buy them.”
In the research, Harris and her team found 96 percent of parents gave their child sugary drinks during the month prior to the survey. Most (77 percent) offered fruit drinks, but regular soda was the second most common beverage, offered by 62 percent of parents. Sports drinks, sweetened iced tea and flavored water were also offered, but at a lower rate. The younger children were, the more likely parents were to offer fruit drinks like Capri Sun or Sunny D, though 40 percent of parents still offered soda in the 2- to 5-year age range.
Sugary beverages have been linked to a number of health issues including tooth decay, diabetes and obesity, and recently a study found eliminating sugary beverages from a child’s diet for just 10 days could significantly reduce the amount of fat in the liver. Fatty liver disease has become more common as the childhood obesity epidemic spreads, and can cause significant health issues as children mature into adults.
Many parents are aware of the risks of obesity, but clever marketing on sugary beverages is being blamed for the high rates of consumption. Parents in the university study indicated claims on packages such as something being “real” or “natural,” containing vitamin C or antioxidants, or being low in calories or sodium, were important factors in their purchasing decision.
For minority parents, who statistically have less access to healthy food options, juice is often viewed as one easy way to provide children with important vitamins and minerals, and sugary beverage manufacturers know how to market to that need.
This study shows that public health efforts and messages urging reduced consumption of sugary drinks should focus on fruit drinks, sports drinks, and flavored water, as well as soda, said Marlene Schwartz, study co-author. There also needs to be increased attention to ingredient claims on product packaging and other marketing tools that may mislead parents to believe that some sugary drinks are healthful options for their children.
Parents are encouraged to read nutrition labels before purchasing juices and other flavored drinks. Current dietary guidelines state added sugars should only make up 10 percent of an individual’s daily diet, and children ages 13 and under drink only water, low-fat and nonfat milk, and 100 percent juice. Adolescents ages 14 to 18 should only drink water, low-fat and nonfat milk, 100 percent juice, and other non-caffeinated, non-fortified beverages with no more than 40 calories per container.