Sugar-Free Juice: Is It a Healthy Alternative?

Find out How Fruit Juice Can Be Labeled Sugar-Free

Grandmother helping grandchild drink orange juice
Is sugar-free fruit juice a healthy option for your kids?. Thinkstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images

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 percent 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, however, still has plenty of sugar.

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, as it may be processed by the body differently than other sugars.

Sugar, even in 100 percent apple juice, still means calories, so it is important to limit your children's intake if they are struggling with excess weight.

Yet, 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
  • A maximum of 4 to 6 ounces per day for infants 6 to 12 months old, but served in a cup only, and not a bottle
  • A maximum of 4 to 6 ounces per day for children 1 to 6 years old
  • A maximum of 8 to 12 ounces per day for children 7 to 18 years old

Keep in mind that these are limits are the maximum amount of fruit juice a child 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. (The process of making juice from whole fruit breaks down the healthy fiber.)

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.

Obesity is one situation in which it important to know that "no added sugar" doesn't actually mean sugar-free. It is also important for parents of kids with diabetes to the understand this principle, as they work to keep track of the sources of calories and sugar in their child's

Although it won't be 100 percent fruit juice, there are a number of drinks which are truly "sugar free" that may be an option (hopefully, as a treat rather than a regular component of diet) for children who are overweight or have diabetes. Some of these include:

  • Water
  • Flavored water, such as Propel, Aquafina FlavorSplash, and Dasani Flavored Water
  • 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 read the labels on 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.

Sugars and Obesity

As we've noted, even 100 percent juices have plenty of calories, and an increase in calories is strongly linked with the increasing problem with childhood obesity.

While there has been much debate over the role of fruit juices and other drinks in contributing to childhood obesity, a 2017 study helped to clarify the role of 100 percent fruit juice among these beverages. In children between the ages of 1 an 6, those who drank greater amounts of juice had a small amount of weight gain. For children between the ages of 7 and 18, however, juice intake (100 percent fruit juice) was not correlated with weight gain.

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 products actually list these artificial sweeteners on the label anymore. You may have to check the ingredients list if you are interested in knowing 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 in moderation.
  • If you are trying to keep your children as healthy as possible, you may want to limit beverages with artificial food dyes, such as those containing tartrazine (FD and C Yellow #5.) Some of these "hidden" ingredients may be of more concern to health down the line than the presence of sugar, or even artificial sweeteners.

A Final and Important Point About Juices for Children

As a final note, many nutrition experts are looking not at what your children are getting from drinking too many beverages, but what they are missing out on due to drinking these beverages. If your children are drinking a lot of fruit juice or sugar-free drinks instead of eating a healthy snack of whole fruit (a banana, some orange slices, or a few blueberries, strawberries, or raspberries) what they are not getting may be more of a problem that what they are getting.

Sources:

Abrams, S., and S. Daniels. Fruit Juice and Child Health. Pediatrics. 2017 Mar 23. (Epub ahead of print).

Auerbach, B., Wolf, F., Hikida, A. et al. Fruit Juice and Change in BMI: A Meta-Analysis. Pediatrics. 2017 Mar 23. (Epub ahead of print).

Kleinman, R., and T. Nicklas. The Women, Infants, and Children Food Package and 100% Fruit Juice. JAMA Pediatrics. 2017. 171(2):197-198.

Newens, K., and J. Walton. A Review of Sugar Consumption from Nationally Representative Dietary Surveys Across the World. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. 2016. 29(2):225-40.

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