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Kids should drink mainly water and milk for the first few years, according to experts. Getty Images
  • Fruit drinks and flavored waters with added sugars made up 62 percent of the year’s $2.2 billion children’s drink sales.
  • Many sweetened drinks have packaging that highlight fresh fruit, when they only contain 5 percent actual fruit juice.
  • Experts say children should mainly be given milk and water to avoid too much sugar.

Though the science has shown sugary drinks are not healthy for children, fruit drinks and similar beverages accounted for more than half of all children’s drink sales in 2018, according to a new report.

The Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut released a report today that found that fruit drinks, as well as flavored waters with added sugars and/or low-calorie sweeteners, made up 62 percent of the year’s $2.2 billion drink sales.

Healthier drinks, such as water or juices made from 100 percent juice, made up 38 percent of sales during the same year.

And plenty of money was spent on advertising these beverages. Companies spent $20.7 million to advertise children’s drinks that contained added sugars. Children ages 2 to 11 saw more than twice as many TV ads for children’s sweetened drinks than for children’s drinks without added sweeteners.

“Beverage companies have said they want to be part of the solution to childhood obesity, but they continue to market sugar-sweetened children’s drinks directly to young children on TV and through packages designed to get their attention in the store,” said Jennifer L. Harris, PhD, MBA, lead study author and the Rudd Center’s director of marketing initiatives. “Parents may be surprised to know that pediatricians, dentists, and other nutrition experts recommend against serving any of these drinks to children.

Dr. Harris’ team evaluated 67 drinks to see the differences between sweetened drinks and beverages without added sweeteners.

Experts say that juice and water blends without added sweeteners have started to hit the market, but the nutrition claims and images can make it difficult for parents to pinpoint which drinks are healthier.

Sugar-sweetened fruit drinks marketed to children typically included 5 percent juice or less, but 80 percent of those packages portrayed images of fruit and 60 percent claimed to have “less” or “low” sugar or “no high fructose corn syrup, ” the report said. Children’s drinks with and without added sweeteners also had similar package sizes and types, flavor names, use of fruit imagery, and front-of-package claims for products.

Low-calorie sweeteners, such as sucralose and stevia, were in 74 percent of children’s sweetened drinks. They were also in drinks that contained added sugars, but there was no mention of low-calorie sweeteners on the front of packages.

One-third of all children’s fruit drinks included 16 grams or more of sugar per serving — the same as 4 teaspoons, which is about half of the maximum amount of added sugars experts recommend for children a day.

Allison Sylvetsky Meni, PhD, an assistant professor of exercise and nutrition sciences at Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University, said a number of factors continue to make sales strong for sugary drinks. Many children like the taste, some people think as long as kids aren’t drinking soda that it’s healthy, and sugary options can be more affordable than healthier ones.

“The juicing trend has given new life to juice sales,” added Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian nutritionist from California. Many new items have come on the market, such as fresh or cold-pressed juices. Green juice blends and at-home juicing has become popular. Trendy juice blends, such as those with ginger or turmeric, are also creating a buzz in general.

Palmer believes many parents are trying to reduce sugary beverage consumption in their households, but may not realize that soda is not the only sugar-laden drink. Some fruit drinks may appear to be healthier, but many can have high levels of added sugars, she said.

A report released last month recommends that children under age 5 should not consume any drinks with added sugars or low-calorie sweeteners, and that they should consume limited amounts of 100 percent juice. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Heart Association created the recommendations.

Fruit juices that are 100 percent juice can be a part of a healthy diet for a child, so long as it is limited to 4 ounces per day for toddlers and up to 8 ounces per day for older kids, Palmer said.

“It’s more healthful to make most of the fruit servings from whole fruits, like oranges, peaches, grapes, apples — they come with fiber and all of the nutrients in the whole plant,” Palmer added. Also, diluting juice or making a flavored water can be helpful to get kids drinking healthier.

Parents should stick to giving children water, flavored unsweetened sparkling water, or diluted juice, Dr. Sylvetsky Meni said.

“They need to repeatedly expose their kids to unsweetened drinks and over time, they will get used to it,” Sylvetsky Meni said.