While fast food, soda, candy and other obvious offenders in the war against obesity have taken the brunt of the attacks from health advocates and pediatricians, a new food item has taken center stage lately, and it’s not one that parents are likely to swallow easily.
Recent studies have indicated that fruit juice, a drink often given to children by both schools and parents for its touted “health benefits,” is a contributor to the obesity epidemic among children. Despite its claimed benefits, more and more health experts are coming to the agreement that fruit juice, even 100 percent fruit juice, is not a healthier alternative than soda or other sugary drinks.
“Juice is just like soda, and I’m saying it right here on camera,” said pediatric obesity specialist Robert Lustig in the documentary “Weight of the Nation.” “There is no difference. When you take fruit and squeeze it, you throw the fiber in the garbage. That was the good part of the fruit. The juice is nature’s way of getting you to eat your fiber.”
The documentary, produced in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, isn’t saying anything that the American Academy of Pediatrics hasn’t said already. Back in 2001, they started advising parents to limit the consumption of fruit juice to no more than 4 to 6 ounces a day for children 6 and under and 8 to 12 ounces for children between the ages 7 and 18.
But the Academy’s head of environmental health told the Tribune in December that parents should abandon fruit juice altogether.
“Don’t drink an apple,” he said. “Eat an apple.”
Most commercial fruit juices are derived from concentrate, even juices that are said to be “100% juice.” Essentially, concentrate is a condensed from of the juices, and the process of concentrating ends up increasing the sugar content of the juice drastically, especially when compared to squeezing the juice from home. When compared to soda, experts are saying that commercially made juices end up containing at least as much sugar as soda.
Beverage makers, of course, dispute the claims that fruit juice and obesity are linked in any way, whatsoever. And why wouldn’t they? They’ve worked hard to shed some of their bad guy persona and have made steps in trying to appear a little healthier to consumers. What? You didn’t know that Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Co are actually some of the biggest juice makers in existence?
The Juice Products Association, a group that represents the various beverage makers, claimed that “scientific evidence does not support a relationship between being overweight and juice consumption.” In fact, they touted that, “scientific evidence strongly maintains the nutritional benefits of 100 percent juice…Studies show that drinking 100 percent fruit juice is associated with a more nutritious diet overall, including reduced intake of dietary fat, saturated fat and added sugars.” Their evidence? A cross-sectional study funded by the juice industry itself that linked higher consumption of 100 percent fruit juice to a higher nutrient intake in children.
University of North Carolina global nutrition professor and author of “The World is Fat: The Fads, Trends, Policies and Products That Are Fattening the Human Race, Barry Popkin, says he’s not buying it. He cited six other studies that linked a higher consumption of fruit juice to a higher risk of diabetes and obesity.
“There are no studies that show the opposite – that drinking a glass or two of fruit juice each day will have positive long-term health benefits on weight or diabetes,” said Popkin.
Unfortunately, shifting the minds of parents may be a little more difficult than experts are hoping for. They fear it may take quite some time to get parents to see the truth behind the message.
“It’s not so difficult to convince a family that soda has no nutritional benefits,” said Dr. Elise Taveras, a pediatrician who serves as the co-director of the Obesity Prevention Program at Harvard Medical School. “It’s harder to convince families that juice can have almost the same sugar content as a glass of soda.”
Rhona Applebaum, vice president and chief scientific and regulatory officer for Coca-Cola, the makers of Minute Maid juice and Odwalla, is a prime example of the mental barrier parents are experiencing in accepting the message of fruit juice being unhealthy. The confusion, it seems, comes from the added nutrients (many of which are not found in the fruit naturally) found in juices.
“I respect what they have to say,” stated Applebaum. “But as a mom, if my 16-year-old can handle the calories and wants a nutritious beverage, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him having a glass of orange juice in the morning and then later with his lunch and dinner. But I want to make sure it’s calcium fortified because I want him to build strong bones.”
She says that she watched most of the “Weight of the Nation” documentary, and agrees with most of it, particularly the messages that focused on diet and exercise. But the idea that fruit juice is bad for her son? That one, she just can’t swallow. She feels that the claims are an “over-exaggeration.”
She’s aware of the fact that juice contains as much sugar and calories as soda, but she says that the health benefits that are offered with it cancel out the risks.
“Orange juice provides your recommended daily allowance of vitamin C and folic acid and more potassium than a banana. It’s all about the how, how much and how often,” Applebaum stated.
Tropicana, owned by PepsiCo, says that they are working hard to provide healthier options for Americans. They say that most Americans fall short of the 8 ounces of fruit per day, as recommended by the USDA guidelines, and that fruit juice is important in the American diet “because it can play a role in helping people meet their daily goals and get vital nutrients.”
Parents aren’t the only ones surprised by the message, however. Even experts have been shocked by the news. Ten years ago, Popkin says he never would have imagined that he’d be telling people to not drink juice.
“But it has taken us about a decade to truly understand the role of fruit juice,” stated Popkin. “In many countries, soft drink companies have fought hard to replace soft drinks with fruit juice (made by juice companies they bought), but the research has shown fruit juice has the same effect as soft drinks on our health – all adverse, negative and fairly severe.”
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