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Is fruit juice healthy for kids? Expert weighs in

Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its guidelines on fruit juice, cautioning parents against serving the drink to their babies for at least one year. 

» RELATED: Here’s how much fruit juice children should drink, according to new guidelines

“Parents may perceive fruit juice as healthy, but it is not a good substitute for fresh fruit and just packs in more sugar and calories,” statement co-author Melvin B. Heyman wrote. “Small amounts in moderation are fine for older kids, but are absolutely unnecessary for children under 1.”

We spoke to Emory University pediatrics professor Jean Welsh, whose primary focus is the role of diet, specifically sugar intake, on human health risk, to learn more.

Misconceptions and risks of fruit juice

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“Fruit juice definitely has a healthy halo that isn’t justified in the current food environment,” Welsh told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In today’s food climate, overconsumption of calories is of greater concern than having access to enough, which was true for many only a few generations ago.”

For years, whole fruit and fruit juice were perceived as equally healthy, but studies have since shown associations between fruit juice and increased risk of dental caries, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

» RELATED: One-third of all humans are now overweight — and American children are leading the way

The United States has the highest rate of childhood obesity in the world at nearly 13 percent — and it’s climbing, according to researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, who documented data on 68.5 million people in 195 countries and territories from 1980 to 2015.

Sugary beverages like fruit juice are part of the problem, scientists noted.

“The main ingredients of fruit juice, sugar and water, are essentially the same as those in sugar-sweetened beverages,” according to Welsh.

» RELATED: Should we slap a tax on sugary drinks? 

And according to a study from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics last year, almost two-thirds of children in the U.S. consumed at least one sugary beverage every day, with about 30 percent consuming at least two, between 2011 and 2014.

That’s more than 10 percent of the recommended total daily calorie intake for children. Current dietary guidelines suggest that less than 10 percent of your daily calories come from added sugars.

» RELATED: What Atlanta dietitians feed their kids 

Welsh and her colleagues followed up with another study last year on the risks of added sugars on children’s health, urging parents to limit intake of added sugars to no more than about 6 teaspoons (or 100 calories) per day -— and sugary drinks to 8 ounces per week.

>> Read more trending news 

She’s also currently researching whether replacing sugar-sweetened beverages with water or other naturally sweetened fruit juices in kids’ diets improves their lipid measures. 

Lipids are fats found in your blood and tissues, used by your body as energy. But high lipid levels, specifically pertaining to low-density lipoprotein (or bad cholesterol), greatly increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. And according to the CDC, heart disease is the number one cause of death for both men and women in the United States.

» RELATED: These 9 healthy-sounding foods have more sugar than a Krispy Kreme doughnut

Current guidelines and recommendations

As aforementioned, parents should limit children’s intake of added sugars to no more than about 6 teaspoons (or 100 calories) per day − and sugary drinks to 8 ounces per week, per current dietary guidelines for children.

The AAP also suggests the following restrictions by age:

  • For children ages one to three years old: Limit fruit juice consumption to no more than 4 ounces each day.

  • For children ages four to six years of age: Limit fruit juice consumption to 4 to 6 ounces each day.

» RELATED: How to cut sugar from kids’ diets in 10 days

Alternatives to fruit juice

Instead of fruit juice, parents should encourage an early diet of whole fruits, Welsh said. Whole fruits provide the same vitamins and minerals and also offer fiber to help with digestion. They also appear to help curb overconsumption of calories.

U.S. dietary guidelines recommend at least half of fruit servings come from whole fruit.

According to Welsh, some alternatives to fruit juice include milk or water with a bit of juice for flavoring. But it’s crucial to keep track of sugars per serving. These figures can be found on a product’s nutrition facts panel (typically on the back).

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