Fruit juice labels often don't tell the whole story

Melissa Erikson

Bright images of apples and berries on the packaging of children’s fruit drinks may be misleading parents. Confusing or exaggerated labels are blurring the distinction between drinks that are acceptable for children and those that contain added sugar or sweeteners.

To solve the problem children’s fruit drinks need new, clearer labels, according to a study from the NYU School of Global Public Health. The Food and Drug Administration last passed new regulations for fruit and fruit drink labels in 1993 and they haven’t been updated since, said Jennifer Pomeranz, assistant professor of public health policy and management at NYU School of Global Public Health and the study’s lead author.

“The area of food labels is one of the most deceptive. Parents don’t realize. Juice drinks are definitely a problem,” Pomeranz said.

“Our research shows that the way in which children’s drinks are labeled makes it very difficult for parents to select healthier drinks for their children,” Frances Fleming-Milici, director of marketing initiatives for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

Pomeranz and Fleming-Milici analyzed children’s drink labels and found similar nutrition claims, such as “good source of Vitamin C” or “no high fructose corn syrup,” on both fruit drinks with added sugar and 100% fruit juice.

Turns out the fruit featured on a drink label may only reflect its flavor rather than actual ingredients.

“Surprisingly, we found that images of fruit appeared on 85% of children’s sweetened drink packages regardless of whether the product contained any fruit juice,” Fleming-Milici said. “Top-selling children’s drink pouches and boxes have a range of products, including sugary fruit drinks, 100% juice and juice/water blends, that look the same in terms of packaging and claims, but have different ingredients.”

Most parents would be shocked that many drinks advertised as appropriate or even healthy for children contain added sugar plus zero- or low-calorie sweeteners such as sucralose and acesulfame potassium, the same sweeteners found in diet soda, Fleming-Milici said.

This can be hidden on the labels, which may read “low sugar” or “less sugar.”

“These claims appeal to parents who care about reducing sugar in their child’s diet, but hide the true ingredients,” Fleming-Milici said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents do not provide products with low-calorie sweeteners to children.

Thoroughly analyzing a drink’s ingredient list and understanding all the chemical terms is too difficult and time consuming for parents, Pomeranz said.

“Beverage manufacturers should clearly indicate on the front of children’s drink packages that a product contains added sugars and/or low-calorie sweeteners and the percent juice content,” Fleming-Milici said. “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration should require that products with nutrition-related claims on packages meet minimum nutrition standards and prohibit the use of fruit and vegetable images on packages of drinks that contain little or no fruit juice.”

A small amount of 100% fruit juice can be a part of a healthy diet, but children should stick with plain milk (up to 4 ounces per day for toddlers and up to 8 ounces for older kids) and water, Pomeranz said.

“The recommendations advise limiting juice because even 100% fruit juice can contribute to cavities, and drinking more than the recommended amount can lead to other negative health impacts such as weight gain,” Fleming-Milici said. “Generally, providing children fruit instead of fruit juice is recommended.”