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Nutrition Claims on Kids’ Fruit Drinks Mislead Consumers, Study Shows

Fruit drinks

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Key Takeaways:

  • Up to 97% of fruit drinks marketed to children have a nutrition claim on the front of their package.
  • A new study found that the presence of nutrition claims on the front package of fruit drinks are not consistently associated with the drink being nutritious or healthy.
  • Government regulatory labeling agencies should consider improvements to nutrition labels so consumers can make informed choices.

If your child’s sippy cup is filled with a fruity beverage, it may be time to rethink that drink.

The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 (DGA) recommend that infants and toddlers completely avoid foods and beverages with added sugars. Children over age 2 should be limited to less than 10% of calories from added sugars.

Unfortunately, the DGA notes that the average toddler actually gets about 100 calories a day from added sugars, and up to 80% of children age 4-8 exceed the 10% limit for added sugars every day. The biggest contributor to sugar intake in young children is fruit drinks.

In a recent study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers examined the prevalence of nutrition-related claims on fruit drinks purchased by households with young children to look for associations between claims and the actual nutritional value of fruit drinks.

Fruit drinks are sugar-sweetened beverages, but often are advertised to be a nutritious option. In fact, the average fruit drink package bares four or more nutrition claims, which may mislead consumers into thinking they are healthier than they really are.

Past studies have shown that nutrition claims on these types of products mislead parents about their health value and increase their likelihood to purchase them. Others have also shown that nutrition claims are more often used on foods marketed towards children, rather than adults.

What Did the Study Find?

The researchers looked at 2,059 fruit drinks purchased by households with children up to age 5. Fruit drinks included fruit-flavored juice cocktails, cordials, nectars, or other fruity drinks with added sweeteners or non-caloric sweeteners. Pure 100% fruit juice with no added sugar was not considered to be a fruit drink.

The front-of-pack labels for juice drinks were evaluated, and researchers found that 97% had at least one nutrition-related claim. The most commonly found claims were:

  • Natural flavors, pure or organic: found on 55% of products
  • Presence of juice or nectar (49%)
  • Vitamin C (33%)
  • Something about sugar content, such as “sugar-free” (29%)
  • Something about calorie content (23%)
  • Something about non-caloric sweeteners (10%)

These findings show that nutrition-related claims are common on fruit drinks marketed toward children. Unfortunately, the presence of these claims was not consistently associated with the fruit drink being nutritious or healthy.

Emily Duffy, RD

Our study adds to a body of existing evidence that demonstrates the presence of a nutrition claim is often not a reliable indicator of a healthier product.

— Emily Duffy, RD

“Our study adds to a body of existing evidence that demonstrates the presence of a nutrition claim is often not a reliable indicator of a healthier product,” says dietitian Emily Duffy, a doctoral student in the Department of Nutrition at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina, and one of the authors of the study.

Interestingly, the researchers found that fruit drinks with claims about vitamin C were higher in calories and sugar, compared with products without this claim.

All of these claims may contribute to confusion and excess consumption of fruit drinks, because parents read the health and nutrition claims and buy fruit drinks that they perceive to be healthy.

“None of the fruit drinks in our sample would be recommended for young children because they contained either added sugars or non-caloric sweeteners,” says Duffy, “yet 97% of these products contained a nutrition claim on the front of the package.”

Better Beverages for Children

“Children should be drinking water most often,” says Amy Chow, a dietitian with Chow Down Nutrition in Langley, BC.

Children have little room in their diet for added sugars, and should make every bite count by being offered nutrient-packed foods instead of sweet treats or drinks.

Fruit drinks, soda, iced tea and other sugar-sweetened beverages should not be offered to children aged 0-2, and should be limited in children aged 3 and up. A high sugar intake is problematic because it is associated with elevated blood pressure, asthma, dental caries, and obesity in children.

“Frequent consumption will increase the likelihood of children getting used to the sweet-flavored drinks instead of water, increase risk of tooth decay as well as displacing room for other nutritious foods in their diet,” says Chow.

Per the DGA, infants should be drinking breastmilk or a commercial infant formula. Toddlers can begin to consume cow’s milk or soy milk at 12 months. Of course, water is fine too, but usually unnecessary before 6 months of age.

The DGA says that drinks without added sugars should be the primary choice for children after age 2. These include water and unsweetened milk or fortified soy beverage—and 100% juice within recommended amounts.

What About 100% Pure Juice?

Some fruit juice is made without added sugar or non-caloric sweeteners, and is labelled as 100% pure fruit juice. Regardless of its “purity,” infants before 12 months of age should not be given any fruit or vegetable juice, according to the DGA.

To her clients, Chow recommends choosing 100% fruit juice only for children over 1 year old and limit it to 4 oz. (1/2 cup) per day with a meal or snack.

After age 1, juice is not necessary in the diet, and whole fruit should be offered instead of juice. If parents do choose to offer 100% fruit juice, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers these guidelines, limiting the intake of juice to, at most:

  • 4 ounces/day in toddlers 1-3 years of age
  • 4 to 6 ounces/day for children 4-6 years of age
  • 8 ounces/day for children 7 and older

Interpreting Food Labels

The most often-used claims, such as “natural flavors” or “vitamin C,” make customers more likely to buy a particular brand of fruit drink, but these claims don’t tell the whole story about a product.

The researchers explain that these elicit a health halo effect in consumers, where a positive perception of an ingredient is extended to a positive assessment of the entire food or product. Don’t believe the hype.

Instead of relying on front-of-pack claims, it’s important to read the whole nutrition label to see if the products contain added sugar, non-caloric sweeteners, or other ingredients that aren’t desirable for young children.

If you are choosing 100% fruit juice, the only ingredient should be fruit, and possibly ascorbic acid (vitamin C). There is no added sugar or non-caloric sweetener in 100% juice.

“Many public health nutrition advocates are calling for the FDA to require prominent sweetener (caloric and non-caloric) disclosures as well as percent juice disclosures on the front of fruit drinks to allow shoppers to make more informed choices,” says Duffy.

What’s Next?

Changes in regulations for labeling fruit drinks would be a great first step. For example, the FDA could only allow “vitamin C” claims on foods that don’t contain added sugars, or could prohibit the word “juice” on products that contain added sugars or non-caloric sweeteners.

Future research in this area should look at how specific claims influence purchase decisions. Duffy also would like to see more experimental evidence showing that nutrition claims cause shoppers to make less healthy choices, which could influence regulatory changes.

What This Means For You

Children should not have a lot of added sugar in their diet, yet fruit drinks are being marketed to this age group as a nutrition option. If you buy fruit beverages for your child, be aware that the nutrition claims can be misleading and give the “health halo” to an otherwise unhealthy drink. Offer children water instead of fruit drinks.

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