Sugar-Free Juice: Is It a Healthy Alternative?

Find out How Fruit Juice Can Be Labeled Sugar-Free

Grandmother helping grandchild drink orange juice
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With all of the talk about the childhood obesity epidemic and concerns about tooth decay and cavities, it is no surprise that parents would like to give their kids sugar-free fruit juice.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as sugar-free fruit juice, even though that is what seems to be marketed by the food industry and many parents think that is what they are buying.

Sugar-Free Fruit Juice—What That Really Means

Why the confusion?

Many brands of 100 percent fruit juice, which is the type of juice that is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for kids, state that they have 'no added sugar,' even though they may have as much as 35 grams of sugar per serving.

To put that in perspective, a can of Coca-Cola has 39 grams of sugar per serving.

What's The Difference Between a Can of Coke and Sugar-Free Drinks?

If you check the ingredients list, the can of Coca-Cola will list high-fructose corn syrup as the sweetener and source of added sugar. On the other hand, the 100% fruit juice will likely get all of its 'no added sugar' from the fruit itself or a fruit juice concentrate.

In this case, "no added sugar" simply means that no sugar or sugar-containing ingredient was added during processing or making the fruit juice. The juice still has sugar in it, though.

In general, a fruit drink or fruit punch will contain added sugar from high fructose corn syrup, in addition to containing artificial flavors and colors.

Keep in mind that some nutrition experts do think that high-fructose corn syrup may be contributing to the current obesity epidemic, though, as it may be processed by the body differently than other sugars.

Sugar, even in 100 percent apple juice, still means calories, though, so don't overdo it.

But if your kids are going to get extra calories from drinks, it is best that you give them drinks with 'no added sugar,' like low-fat milk and 100 percent fruit juice, as long as you do it in moderation.

100 Percent Fruit Juice

For many kids, drinking 100 percent fruit juice, despite the fact that it has some sugar and calories, is fine, as long as you stick with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations of:

  • no juice if your child is under six months old
  • 4 to 6 oz/d for infants 6 to 12 months old, but served in a cup only, and not a bottle
  • 4 to 6 oz/d for children 1 to 6 years old
  • 8 to 12 oz/d for children 7 to 18 years old

Keep in mind that these are limits, though, the maximum amount of fruit juice they should drink each day, and not actual recommendations to drink juice. It is always healthier for kids to actually eat whole fruit instead, so they get fiber in their diet too.

Sugar-Free Drinks

If your child is overweight or at risk of becoming overweight, it might not be a good idea to get any extra calories and sugar from fruit juice.

This is the situation when knowing that 'no added sugar' doesn't actually mean sugar-free is important. It is also important for parents of kids with diabetes, who have to keep track of where all the calories and sugar in their diet are coming from.

Although it won't be 100 percent fruit juice, there are a number of real sugar free drinks available, such as:

  • Water
  • Flavored water, such as Propel, Aquafina FlavorSplash, and Dasani Flavored Water, etc.
  • Crystal Light
  • Kool-Aid Sugar-Free
  • Hawaiian Punch Sugar-Free
  • Caffeine Free Diet Soda

Added Sugars

In addition to high-fructose corn syrup, other names for added sugars to look for on the ingredients list of drinks your kids might want include:

  • brown sugar
  • corn sweetener
  • corn syrup
  • dextrose
  • fructose
  • fruit juice concentrates
  • glucose
  • honey
  • invert sugar
  • lactose
  • maltose
  • malt syrup
  • molasses
  • raw sugar
  • sucrose
  • sugar
  • syrup

Looking for added sugars is especially important as many foods are removing high-fructose corn syrup and adding other sugars instead. Since this is still sugar and calories and is not necessarily any healthier, make sure you understand that sugar is in the foods you are giving your kids.

You might also suspect that a drink has added sugars if it is less than 100 percent juice or the label states that it is a beverage, cocktail, diluted juice, drink, punch, or soda.

What You Need to Know About Drinking Your Calories

Other things to know about fruit juice and sugar-free drinks include that:

  • There is no such thing as sugar-free orange juice, sugar-free grape juice, or sugar-free apple juice since those fruits from which the juices are made contain their own natural sugars.
  • Like 100 percent fruit juice, milk is another "no added sugar" drink, unless you add chocolate or strawberry flavoring, which will add extra sugar to your child's milk.
  • Low-fat milk is not usually a drink that you have to limit unless your child is drinking more than the recommended daily amounts for his age.
  • Offer juice at meals or snacks and don't let your kids have it continuously throughout the day, even if you water down their juice. Drinking juice too often can increase your child's risk of cavities.
  • Sugar-free drinks, except for plain, unflavored water, are going to be sweetened with an artificial sweetener, such as aspartame (NutraSweet) or Splenda (Sucralose). Few actually list them on the label anymore. You may have to check the ingredients list if you are interested in whether or not a product contains an artificial sweetener. Although some parents are concerned about the safety of these artificial sweeteners, the FDA, and most health experts do consider them to be safe for kids.

Sources:

American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Nutrition. 2007. Policy statement: The use and misuse of fruit juice in pediatrics. Pediatrics 119:405.

Crawford PB. How discretionary can we be with sweetened beverages for children? J Am Diet Assoc - 01-SEP-2008; 108(9): 1440-4

USDA. Inside the Pyramid. http://www.mypyramid.gov/pyramid/discretionary_calories_sugars.html. April 2009. 

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