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Fruit drinks for children have ‘unacceptably high’ sugar levels

Around half of products contain entire daily recommended intake

Adrian O'Dowd

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Fruit drinks marketed to children have “unacceptably high” levels of sugar and manufacturers should be forced to reduce the sugar content, claims a study* published today in the online journal BMJ Open.

Growing public awareness of the detrimental effect sugar sweetened drinks have on children’s teeth and weight has prompted many parents to choose seemingly healthier fruit juice and smoothie alternatives.

Dental decay is the most common reason for children in England being admitted to hospital, while an increased intake of fructose and sugar-sweetened drinks has been associated with childhood obesity.

Researchers from the University of Liverpool and campaign group Action on Sugar at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine set out to investigate the amount of sugars in fruit juices, juice drinks and smoothies marketed to children.

They measured the quantity of ‘free’ sugars per 100 ml in 203 standard portion sizes (200 ml) of UK branded and supermarket own label products, using the pack labelling information provided.

‘Free’ sugars means sugars, such as glucose, fructose, sucrose, and table sugar, which are added by the manufacturer, and naturally occurring sugars in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates, but not the naturally occurring sugars found in whole fruits and vegetables.

Results showed there was wide variation in the amount of free sugars between different types of drink and within the same type of product.

The sugar content ranged from 0-16g per 100ml, with the average 7g per 100ml, but sugar content was significantly higher in pure fruit juices and smoothies.

Among the 158 fruit juice drinks analysed, the average sugar content was 5.6g per 100ml, but rose to 10.7g per 100ml among the 21 pure fruit juices tested, and to 13g per 100ml among the 24 smoothies assessed.

Nevertheless, 85 juice drinks, which accounted for more than 40% of the total sample of products, contained at least 19g of free sugars (almost five teaspoons), which is a child’s entire daily maximum recommended amount.

The researchers said that almost 60% of all the products would get a red traffic light label from the coding system designed by the UK’s Food Standards Agency to help consumers identify high levels of fat, salt, and sugar in processed food and drink.

Although 78 of the products studied contained non-calorific sweeteners, such as aspartame which are considered to be safe, the researchers said that health experts recommended that a reduction in the overall sweetness of products was needed to make children’s taste buds become accustomed to less sugar in their diets.

Out of the 203 drinks studied, only six of the products matched the 150ml portion size as recommended by current dietary guidelines for fruit juice, fruit drink and smoothies.

The researchers made several recommendations including:

  • fruit juices/juice drinks/smoothies with a high free sugar content should not count as one of the UK government’s ‘5 a day’ recommendations, as is currently the case
  • fruit should preferably be eaten whole, not as juice
  • portion sizes should be limited to 150 ml/day
  • manufacturers should stop adding unnecessary amounts of sugars to their fruit drink/juice/smoothie products or the government should step in with statutory regulations

* Boulton J, et al. How much sugar is hidden in drinks marketed to children? A survey of fruit juices, juice drinks and smoothies. BMJ Open 2016;6:e010330 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2015-010330     

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