Confusing claims and tricky marketing make sweetened drinks seem healthier than they are, says a new study. Here's what you should know before buying.

By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD
October 16, 2019

Most of the best-selling kids' drinks are unhealthy for kids, according to a new study. Even worse, parents may be fooled into thinking these drinks are smart choices, when they actually aren't.

Kids' drinks are big business, reaching $2.2 billion in sales last year. Researchers from the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity looked at the top-selling drinks that were intended for kids and found the 62 percent of the bestsellers were sweetened drinks (the rest were 100% fruit juice or juice-water blends, and the study did not include any milks).

One serving of many of the most popular fruit drink brands (like Capri Sun Juice Drink and Sunny D) had more than half the recommended amount of daily added sugar for children. Drinks are a huge source of added sugar for children, accounting for more than half the sugar they get each day.

An interesting twist: About three-quarters of those sweetened drinks contained low-calorie sweeteners such as sucralose and acesulfame potassium. Drinks with low-calorie sweeteners aren't recommended for young kids, according to the newest beverage guidelines from groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics. Low-cal sweeteners are a way for manufacturers to reduce the overall added sugar but keep the sweet taste.

Parents may think these sweetened drinks are healthy choices because of the packaging, say the researchers. For instance, 85 percent of the top-selling drinks showed pictures of fruit on the front label, even though only 35 percent actually contained juice. As for low-cal sweeteners, the front label typically doesn't say that the product contains them, thought it may say "low in sugar" or "less sugar". Parents have to look at the ingredient list and understand the chemical names. "Many parents don't know these ingredient names, so it's really disguised," says lead author Jennifer Harris, PhD. In one survey of parents, most reported being wary of low-cal sweeteners.

It's also hard to know when drinks contain all juice or just a tiny amount. The percent of actual juice is usually not listed on the front of the package--you have to look on the nutrition facts panel on the back to find out. Fruit drinks with added sugar are the most common kind of sugary drink that kids consume.

To make a smarter pick, here are some tips for navigating the drinks aisle:

  • Ignore the front of the package. It's mostly marketing.
  • Check the nutrition facts panel for the percent juice the drink contains.
  • Look at the ingredient list and check for names of low-calorie sweeteners. The most common ones in kids’ drinks are sucralose, acesulfame potassium, neotame, and stevia.
  • If one of the first ingredients is sugar, figure out how much the beverage contains. Divide the grams of sugar on the nutrition facts panel by four to get the equivalent teaspoons (for example, 16 grams of sugar is four teaspoons' worth). The Dietary Guidelines recommend no more than six teaspoons a day for kids ages 2-3, no more than 7-8 for kids 4-8.
  • Watch portions of 100 percent juice. Preschoolers should have no more than four ounces a day, no more than 4-6 ounces a day for children ages 4-6, and no more than 8 ounces (one cup) for older kids.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a Contributing Editor and registered dietitian who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids and Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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