February 24, 2024

As with many parenting fails, I blame Gina Ford.

I say this with a caveat: Gina was extremely useful when my children were babies and I wanted to get them into a routine – but she also recommended feeding babies diluted juice from six months old (as an alternative to milk or formula, which Gina worried would limit iron absorption). I duly purchased cartons of unsweetened orange juice to give to my small sons – and indeed, they were very happy to drink it, especially as they got older and the dilution levels got less.

I look back now and wonder if I had actually gone mad. Unsweetened or not, orange juice contains an awful lot of sugar, even if you buy the expensive, organic kind. A 750ml bottle of Abel & Cole’s organic unsweetened orange juice, for example, contains 8.6 grams of sugar per 100ml of juice. Even well-diluted, that’s still adding unnecessary sugars to a child’s diet.

For years now, evidence has been mounting to show that fruit juice is dreadful for our teeth and our health. The latest – a Canadian study using data from 46,000 children – showed every daily glass of juice a child drinks is linked with an increase in BMI.

But juice, it seems, is every parent’s blind spot. Only this morning, my youngest son had a school event at which orange juice and pastries were being served. I’d never have let him have a fizzy drink or a Mars Bar before 9am, but a glass of OJ, despite the whopping amount of sugar it contains, seemed perfectly acceptable – and I wasn’t the only parent there obviously making the same call.

Whether it’s the beaker of apple or orange juice included on the kids’ menu in a restaurant, a glass of OJ at breakfast, a Fruit Shoot as a lunchbox liquid or a temptingly-packaged Innocent smoothie, we’re all guilty of thinking it can’t hurt that much – and, after all, it’s better than a can of Coke, right?

In fact, Tim Spector, the renowned epidemiologist, founder of the Zoe app and author of books such as The Diet Myth, recently said he would prefer people drank Coca Cola than orange juice. “It’s pretty obvious Coca Cola is a naughty treat. Nothing says it’s great for you and your teeth. Whereas orange juice is ultra-processed food, sold as a health food. It really should come with a health warning.”

The confusion comes from the fact fruit is good for us as a source of vitamins, fibre and minerals and a vital part of a health diet. But when a fruit such as an orange is juiced, you lose the fibre and the sugars come out of their cells and become ‘free sugars’ – the type associated with obesity. It’s also less filling, and so we end up consuming more sugar than we would if eating a whole fruit.

Juice consumption has been shown to raise your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and possibly even cancer. As far back as 1997, the American Academy of Paediatrics was warning that excessive fruit juice consumption by preschoolers was affecting growth and causing obesity. A 2003 study found correlation between fruit juice consumption and poor dental health. Everywhere you look, it seems, the sugar in fruit juice is causing damage.

But these days, however, it’s hard to avoid. Scan the aisles of any supermarket and you’ll find a dazzling array of juice on offer, from passionfruit to pineapple, blood orange to blackcurrant.

And it can be hard to work out which are good and which are bad. NHS guidelines recommend that children aged seven to 10 should have no more than 24g of sugar a day; for kids aged four to six the limit is 19g.

We all know we shouldn’t be giving our kids cans of Coke – with 39g of sugar per can – but how about a carton of Pip Organic Cloudy Apple Fruit Juice? Or a 300ml glass of antioxidant-rich Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice? Well, that’s 17.72g of sugar and a whopping 42g of sugar respectively. Maybe not quite so healthy after all.

So why do we do it?

“I just somehow feel it’s better than giving them a fizzy drink,” admits one mum friend, who hastily adds that at home, it’s water all the way, but out and about she’ll often buy her daughter a carton of juice if she’s treating herself to a coffee. “It’s the ultimate pacifier,” agrees another friend. “I always get the juice or smoothie cartons in for playdates because even fussy eaters love them. My children now expect it whenever we eat out, and if you then add on birthday parties and having the odd one at home, it mounts up.”

Is there any nutritional value in juice? Well, the Toronto study did acknowledge that fruit juice can be a “convenient means to meet daily fruit recommendations”, and contains “essential vitamins, antioxidants and polyphenols”. Which is perhaps why we get so confused in the first place.

Some are waking up to the dangers: there have been calls for the Government to expand the sugar tax to include fruit juice. George Osborne, who was against the idea when he was chancellor, now backs it because “most people think a glass of orange juice every day is a good thing”.

While Osborne battles his particular regrets, I’ve meanwhile moved onto the hard stuff. My kids are old enough now to find even a glass of the sugariest juice not exciting enough for their tastes – they want Coca Cola. For now, we’re compromising on Diet or Zero. After all, it’s got less sugar than a glass of OJ.

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