Too much of a good thing Health: Studies suggest parents should slow the flow of juice to youngsters. Give them fruit and water instead.

February 04, 1997|By Judy Foreman | Judy Foreman,BOSTON GLOBE

Is your toddler getting pudgy? Is your preschooler shorter than the other kids? Are your kids' teeth sprouting white spots or brown stains?

If so, the culprit may be the juice craze that's sweeping the nation, as well-meaning parents stuff lunchboxes and backpacks with juice boxes and kids guzzle the stuff all day.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics last month found kids who drank more than 12 ounces of fruit juice a day were more likely to be short or fat, though not both, than kids who drank less than 12 ounces.

The American Academy of Pediatrics quickly chimed in with a different warning -- that too much juice with a type of sugar called sorbitol, found in pear and apple juice, can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain or bloating.

And last year, the American Dental Association published yet another study that showed that drinking too much fruit juice, which often contains fluoride, can trigger a process called fluorosis that leaves white or dark brown spots on kids' teeth.

Health researchers have long been appalled at America's worsening dietary habits, in part because 22 percent of kids and teen-agers are now overweight, up 47 percent from 30 years ago.

Last fall, a study by researchers at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center's Nutrition Information Center concluded that "liquid nutrition," including high-calorie fruit juices and soft drinks consumed by kids and teen-agers, may play a key role in the growing problem of childhood obesity.

It's not just that juices have lots of calories -- 155 of them in an 8-ounce box of grape juice, for instance -- but that juices may be "replacing other more important nutrients," says Dr. William Dietz, director of clinical nutrition at the Floating Hospital for Children at New England Medical Center.

The emerging consensus from those concerned about kids' health is that many children would be better off drinking a little less juice and a little -- or even a lot -- more skim or lowfat milk and plain old water. Not to mention eating more real fruit, which has fiber and other goodies.

But before you dump the fruit juice out with the bathwater, consider the finer points of all this.

The study in Pediatrics, conducted by Dr. Barbara Dennison, a pediatrician at Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown, N.Y., is less scary than it sounds at first.

Dennison's team studied 168 healthy kids -- ages 2 and 4 -- recording weight, height and dietary habits, including how much juice they drank. The researchers counted only the real stuff -- 100 percent fruit juice, including mixed juices like Juicy Juice -- not juice-flavored drinks.

Only 19 kids (11 percent of the study group) drank 12 ounces of juice a day or more, a tiny number on which to make weighty dietary recommendations. But of these 19, eight (or 42 percent) were short. Of those who drank less than 12 ounces a day, only 14 percent were short.

The team also found that those few kids who drank 12 ounces of juice a day or more were tubby. About half of them -- 10 -- were in the 75th percentile for body mass index, a commonly used measure that includes both height and weight. Among those who drank less juice -- all the other kids -- 32 percent were overweight.

Dennison has several hypotheses to explain her results. Perhaps, she says, kids who drink lots of juice don't get other nutrients they need: "That would explain why they are short."

Other kids may gain weight because they drink juice on top of everything else they normally consume, she says, thus consuming more calories per kilogram of body weight than other kids.

Few of the kids in Dennison's study drank soda pop, she adds, because they were so young and because "a lot of parents go out of their way to get 100 percent juice." Because preschoolers need two servings of fruit a day, she says, it's fine for one to be a glass of juice, but the other should be real fruit.

Needless to say, the National Food Processors Association is less than thrilled by Dennison's findings. Rhona Applebaum, the group's executive vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs, notes that this was only an observational study and could not establish cause and effect.

If Dennison's study were the only concern, this might be just a tempest in a juice box. But it's not. There's also all that fluoride.

A team of dentists, led by researchers at the University of Iowa, last year contacted manufacturers of 532 ready-to-drink juices, frozen-juice concentrates and juice-flavored drinks to see how much fluoride was in their products. More than half of products contained too much fluoride, they found, although parents would never know this because package labels say nothing about fluoride concentrations.

In the right amounts -- 0.3 to 0.6 parts per million -- fluoride prevents tooth decay, according to the Academy of General Dentistry. That's why many towns add fluoride to drinking water, why toothpaste makers put fluoride in their products and why dentists give kids fluoride treatments.

But if juice drinks are manufactured in communities where the water supply has high fluoride levels, the result can be an excess of fluoride -- and white or brown spots on the teeth.

The bottom line, say the New York nutrition researchers, is to get kids and teen-agers to cut their overall consumption of high-calorie fruit juices and soft drinks.

You can get there by diluting juices 3-to-1 with water, putting kids' favorite cups near a water cooler and putting water bottles in kids lunch boxes at least several times a week.

And when your child gets thirsty, offer water. "That's what the body wants," says Dietz.

Pub Date: 2/04/97

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