Research has revealed that 'healthy' fruit juices, smoothies and fruit drinks marketed to children and their parents contain “unacceptably high” levels of sugar, often as much in one small carton or bottle as a child should consume in a day, reports UK newspaper the Guardian.
The paper published in the journal BMJ Open comes in the wake of the chancellor George Osborne’s announcement of a tax on sugary soft drinks – but fruit juices and smoothies are exempt. The researchers say tough action is needed to reduce the amount of sugar children consume in fruit drinks that are bought and sold on the assumption that they are healthy.
“These are marketed intensively to children as well as to parents,” said Prof Simon Capewell of the department of public health and policy at the University of Liverpool, one of the authors.
“There is often a health halo – some claim about vitamin C or ‘packed full of fruit’. There are no restrictions around the words industry can use in their marketing. They can claim or imply quite a lot. Then we end up with more than a third of these drinks having more sugar in them than a cola or fizzy drink.
The researchers analysed 203 fruit juices, fruit drinks and smoothies stocked by seven major supermarkets – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, the Co-op and Morrisons. They found almost half contained a child’s entire recommended daily intake of sugar, which is a maximum of 19g or nearly five teaspoons.
They looked for added sugar or naturally occurring sugars in the juices and smoothies. The average sugar content was 7g per 100ml, but in fruit juices and smoothies, it was significantly higher. Among the 21 fruit juices analysed, it averaged 10.7 per 100ml and among the 24 smoothies, it averaged 13g per 100ml.
Almost 60% of the drinks would get a red traffic light label on the basis of their sugar content, the paper says. The researchers say that 78% of the drinks contained a non-calorific sweetener such as aspartame. Although these have been declared safe by the European Food Safety Authority, they write, they believe a reduction in the overall sweetness of drinks is necessary to reduce children’s desire for sugary things.
Eating fruit does not pose the same problems as drinking the juice, say the authors of the paper. “One key difference between whole fruit and juice is fibre content,” they write. “Whole fruit slows down consumption and has a satiating effect. Research shows the body metabolises fruit juice in a different way compared to whole fruit.” Drinking juice and smoothies does not seem to reduce children’s appetite in the way that eating fruit can do.
The researchers recommend that fruit juices, fruit drinks and smoothies with high sugar content should not count as one of the “Five a Day” recommended by the government. “Ideally, fruit should be consumed in its whole form, not as juice,” they write. “Parents should dilute fruit juice with water, opt for unsweetened juices and only give them during meals. Portions should be limited to 150ml a day.”
UK guidelines say fruit juices and smoothies can count as one of the five fruits and vegetables children should eat a day but only in 150ml servings. The study found only six products that came in 150ml cartons.
Gavin Partington, the British Soft Drinks Association’s director general, said: “It is completely misleading to suggest that 100% fruit juice and fruit juice smoothies contain added sugar, they are not allowed to by law and contain only naturally occurring sugars from the fruit. At the same time they provide essential vitamins and nutrients which many people in the UK today are sadly lacking.
“Only last week Public Health England confirmed that 150ml of fruit juice or fruit juice smoothies can contribute to the five a day target. Very few people reach their five a day target and given the positive contribution it has to the diet, it is counter-intuitive to suggest that 100% pure juice should not contribute to it.”