The sugar content in fruit juices, juice drinks and smoothies marketed to children in the UK “is unacceptably high,” with more than 40% containing at least the maximum daily intake of 19 g of sugar and 64% containing half the maximum intake level, researchers argue in a study published March 23 online in BMJ Open.
The finding is based on the amount of “free” sugars, including glucose, fructose, sucrose and table sugar added by the manufacturer and naturally occurring sugars in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates, found per 100 ml in 203 standard portion sizes of UK branded and private label products marketed to children.
The researchers acknowledge that the sugar content in the beverages varied widely with an average of only 7 g per 100 ml. But, they added, the sugar content was significantly higher for pure fruit juice at 10.7 g per 100 ml compared to 5.6 g for fruit juice drinks. The content in smoothies beat out the other two categories though with an average of 13 g per serving.
Misunderstanding about sugar content abounds
The results are particularly troubling given that most people underestimate the sugar in fruit juices and smoothies by 48% on average, and that many parents may replace sugar-sweetened carbonated drinks that are perceived as unhealthy with fruit juices, juice drinks and smoothies, which they believe to be healthier, the authors write.
This confusion can lead to children continuing to consume the same amount or more free sugars, which the authors note when in drinks are linked to dental cavities, tooth decay, increased weight and risk of non-communicable diseases and can push out consumption of more nutritious food, thus leading to an overall unhealthy diet.
A call to reduce sugar
With this risk in mind, the authors call upon manufacturers to stop adding unnecessary sugars and calories to their fruit juices, juice drinks and smoothies that target children. They also chastise manufacturers for selling portions that are too large for children, noting that only five of the products surveyed were limited to the recommended serving size of 150 mg.
If companies are unwilling to voluntarily act, the authors threaten, “it will be essential for the government to introduce legislation to regulate the free sugars content of these products.”
In addition, the researchers argue that juices and smoothies high in free sugars should not count as a serving of fruit because the risks of the high sugar content outweigh the benefits. Rather, the government should encourage consumers to eat whole fruit, rather than just the juice.
They explain whole fruit is healthier than juice because it includes fiber, which slows down consumption and makes children feel full so they are less likely to over-consume calories.
“Research shows the body metabolizes fruit juice in a different way compared to whole fruit. After whole fruit consumption, the body seems to adjust its subsequent energy intake appropriately, whereas after fruit juice consumption, the body does not compensate for the energy intake,” the researchers add.
The study also encourages parents to dilute fruit juice with water, which obviously would also dilute manufacturers’ sales, or opt for unsweetened juices to be consumed only during meals.