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Is Fruit Juice Bad For Your Children?

Once seen as nutritious, juice is now being exposed for its high sugar content and minimal health benefits. But should we take it off the menu entirely?

The government includes fruit juice, smoothies and dried fruit in its five-a-day campaign. Yet, recently, their health halo has begun to slip, with researchers from Glasgow University saying that fruit juice is potentially ‘just as bad for you as sugary drinks’, and calling for labels to be placed on containers warning us not to drink more than 150ml (¼pt) a day.

While whole fruit is good for our kids (packed full of vitamins, antioxidants, fibre and other health-boosting goodies), its offshoots are in the firing line. The processing they go through, whether that’s juicing, drying or squeezing, can crank up the sugar and, in turn, the teeth-damaging acid content – tooth decay is caused by bacteria in the mouth turning sugar into acid.

Make it a treat

In fact, juice is so high in sugar that the government’s official advice that a glass counts towards your five-a-day should be changed, according to Susan Jebb, a government advisor on obesity. ‘Fruit juice isn’t the same as whole fruit and has as much sugar as fizzy drinks,’ she says. ‘Because it doesn’t contain fibre – like whole fruit does – by the time it gets to the stomach, your body doesn’t know if it’s cola or orange juice.’

That’s not to say that cola is on a par with juice – far from it. Juice does contain vitamin C and other nutritional goodies, but it still has more sugar than many of us thought.

'Water or milk is always the healthiest option'

This is all potentially guilt-inducing, but don’t panic, says Dr Frankie Phillips, an expert in baby and toddler nutrition for the British Dietetic Association. ‘As a rule, water or milk is always the healthiest option, and babies under six months shouldn’t be given juice at all.

However, if your little one is drinking unsweetened 100% fruit juice (fresh or concentrated) that’s been heavily diluted, or is having the occasional cup of juice or smoothie with a meal or as a treat, there’s no need to worry.’

Dilute it

When you’re diluting, think one part juice to 10 parts water for younger babies. ‘After the age of two, this ratio can be decreased,’ says Frankie. ‘It’s still a good idea to keep juices well watered down, at least one part to two parts water.’

But, as many of us know from experience, some kids just won’t drink anything other than juice if they’ve become used to it. ‘I’ve been paranoid about my son becoming dehydrated, so I give him lots of juice to encourage him to drink up,’ says Jenny Lawrence, 34, from Dorset, mum to Luke, three. ‘He won’t touch water, no matter how much I try.’

This is a common problem, according to nutritionist Jane Clarke, author of Yummy Baby (£12, Mitchell Beazley), but there are some clever ways to make sure everyone’s happy. ‘Start to secretly dilute, but increase the amount of water gradually, so you’re at least kicking off a slow weaning process,’ she says. ‘Your toddler probably won’t even notice.’

Choose your juice

Try to offer the juice with meals, which reduces the risk of tooth decay, and choose wisely. ‘Diluted apple juice has the lowest GI value, which is a measure of how quickly a food gets absorbed and raises blood-sugar levels,’ says Jane. ‘Offering a small glass with a meal containing iron can be useful, as the vitamin C in the juice helps your child’s body absorb the mineral from the food.’

Unlike juice, smoothies contain fibre, which at least slows down the rate at which sugar is released, helping to avoid ‘highs’. But, because they still contain a large amount of fruit and are drunk quickly, watch how much your child has.

‘Serve small amounts in an open cup and never a bottle, and give your child a straw – this way, the fruit sugars and acids don’t have direct contact with teeth,’ says Frankie. Also, bear in mind a study, published in the British Dental Journal, which found that strawberry and banana combos are kinder to teeth, rather than those containing a mix of more acidic fruit like kiwi, apple and lime.

Get your timing right

And it’s not just drinks that have been hitting the headlines – it’s toddler favourites like raisins, too. Kate Morris, 33, from West Sussex, mum to Oscar, three, found out the hard way.

‘Oscar loves fruit juice and eats endless raisins, fruit bars and dried banana chunks, but I never give him sweets,’ she says. ‘So when our dentist said he found a hole in his teeth and said his love of dried fruit could have caused it, I was shocked.’

But this isn’t about putting an end to the snacks your child loves (aka the ones that buy you five minutes of peace in the middle of a tantrum!) Because it’s not necessarily what we feed our kids that’s to blame, but when. ‘If you eat sweet things with, or after, a meal, the extra saliva created by chewing helps protect teeth from the damaging acids sugar becomes,’ says British Dental Association spokesperson Janet Clarke.

'Offer a chunk of cheese afterwards to prevent tooth decay'

However, if you do want to give fruit-based snacks between meals, save them for a treat, to be eaten in one sitting (it’s when you leave children to graze all afternoon that the sugars and acids do the most damage). Then, offer a chunk of cheese afterwards. Studies have found if you give your child cheese, which is alkaline, after they’ve eaten something acidic, this helps neutralise the bacteria that cause decay.

‘And, while regular brushing is essential, you should avoid it within 30 minutes of eating sweet foods as it increases the acid erosion on teeth,’ says Janet. If this is impossible with the morning rush to nursery, she suggests giving your child water to help wash away some of the sugar.

As with everything, think moderation. And next time your toddler demands his snack, give him a Babybel chaser.  

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