Perhaps you have heard about the controversy surrounding arsenic levels in apple juice discussed a couple of weeks ago on the “Dr. Oz” show. Without getting into the details here, Dr. Oz had different brands of apple juice assessed by a laboratory and found that most of them had levels of arsenic, a poison, many times the FDA approved level for drinking water. The FDA and some of the juice companies say that the type of arsenic found may not be harmful. They also say that it is inaccurate to compare arsenic levels in apple juice to levels in drinking water because people drink much more water in a lifetime than apple juice, and arsenic has to build up in the body over time before it reaches toxic levels.
I am not too concerned about the levels of arsenic in apple juice because my children don't drink juice very often. When they are with me, they drink water and milk unless there is a special occasion. I consider juice a treat, not a staple beverage. I gave my babies water when they were ready for something besides milk, and I don’t keep juice in the house. I know it is strange to refuse my children this staple of childhood.
Juice had not been a part of my life for a very long time before I had children. My parents did not buy it when I was a child because of the expense; we had plenty of fruit, which was much cheaper. I never became accustomed to drinking juice, other than an occasional glass of orange juice, and I didn’t want the calories it contained when I could buy my own groceries.
I became concerned about giving my children juice because of the calories, too. Childhood obesity is an epidemic; some researchers believe the life expectancy of the US population in general might decrease as today’s children become adults and die of weight-related diseases like heart disease, some cancers, and diabetes. These diseases are real: I imagine you, like me, know many people who have died from or been disabled by diseases they would not have had if they were not obese. I try to teach my children proper eating and exercise habits while I still have control over the foods they eat and whether or not they spend hours in front of the TV instead of running around outside.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was a child, I imagine most parents gave little thought to obesity in children. My parents made me eat my vegetables and limited sweets, but I don’t think they ever really worried about me becoming obese. It was easier to prevent obesity when food was more expensive, especially those “snack” items. When I was a child, entire aisles of the grocery store were not devoted to juice and “juice drinks.” There were three channels on TV, most shows were for adults and older children, and there were few cartoons except for Saturday morning. Today, my children could live off convenience foods and watch cartoons all day if I let them.
I looked at juice containers at the grocery store last week. A “juice box” containing 100% juice has 100 calories and 22 grams of sugar. An apple has 65 calories, 3 grams of fiber, and 13 grams of sugar. Fruit has naturally occurring sugar, but in juice it’s more concentrated than in an apple. An apple does not contain as much Vitamin C as the juice, which is fortified with ascorbic acid (you can get the same effect by giving your child a multivitamin) but it also contains small amounts of other vitamins and minerals, and 3 grams of fiber, if eaten with skin, and 1 gram of fiber without skin. An apple actually fills your stomach, and it takes a long time to eat compared to the, in the case of my child anyway, minute or two it takes to drink a juice box. The fiber in the apple helps your body cope with absorbing the sugar. Children aged 4-8 should consume about 1300 calories a day. If a child sucks down a couple of juice boxes a day, that’s using up a lot of the calorie allotment. Anything called a “juice drink” is nothing more than water, sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, food coloring, and perhaps 10% juice. You might as well serve Kool-Aid or soda.
Apple juice is expensive: a common national brand cost $3.29 for about 32 ounces divided into 8 juice boxes; a 46-ounce jug cost $3.39. A 3-pound bag of apples, containing about 15 apples, cost $2.99. When I was a child, I don’t think juice boxes had been invented, and food cost more than it does today. In general, families could not afford to allow their children to drink as much juice as they can today, and so it was not possible to allow one’s child to drink much juice.
Many folks cut the juice with water, which reduces calories, but the practice also trains the child’s taste buds to want a sweetened beverage and to be unsatisfied with plain water. I believe children’s taste buds become accustomed to enjoying what they are served. Children in India like curry and children in Japan like sushi, foods most American children would not touch. Mine don’t much care for those foods either, because I don’t serve them often, but if I fed those foods every day from infancy I imagine they would. Children who will drink only juice-sweetened water may become teenagers or adults that drink gallons of soda.
It is always better to eat the whole food, like the whole apple, than part of the food, like the juice. It is always better to eat a food than to drink it. Your body has to work harder to digest it, and you remain full longer. When my children have juice, I think of it like a cookie: okay for a treat, but I have no illusions about it being a great food they should consume whenever they want. By not having it in the house, they cannot nag me for it and I do not have to set limits about when they can drink it. It is simply not an option at home, normally. I give them all the whole fruit to eat and water to drink they want. If you want to reduce the amount of juice your children drink, cut the juice with water, and increase the amount of water while decreasing the amount of juice. If you go slowly enough, they might not even notice.