Do Children Need Sugar-Free Juice and Drinks?

young boy drinking juice with straw

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With all of the diet culture talk that happens all around us, it is no surprise that parents might question whether they should give their kids sugar-free fruit juice. After all, we see sugar and other foods labeled as "bad" or "dangerous" in magazines, on TV shows, in conversations, and even on kids' shows.

The bottom-line is that labeling foods as bad or dangerous , or assigning moral value to certain bodies or ways of eating is far more dangerous. It's also very important to remember that supporting kids in feeling autonomous in their choices around food is vital for children of all body sizes.

Nutrition recommendations, and the recommendations that encourage the development of a healthy relationship with food, eating, and bodies, do not vary depending on a child's body size. Here's what you need to know about sugar-free drinks.

Can Fruit Juice Really Be Sugar-Free?

Fruit naturally contains sugar—that's what makes it sweet. If you're looking at 100% fruit juice, which is the type of juice that is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for kids, these juices will contain sugar from the fruit from which they were made. Some companies choose to label juice with "no added sugar," meaning that, other than sugar from the fruit itself, no additional sugar has been added.

If you see a fruit drink labeled as "sugar free" then it is a flavored drink sweetened with high-intensity sweeteners. These sugar-free drinks, which are mainly marketed in relation to dieting are unnecessary for kids (and adults).

Fruit Juice Recommendations

Fruit juice can be a fun, delicious, and yes, even healthful part of a child's diet. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Encourage kids to opt for water for their go-to beverage with meals.
  • Encourage eating whole fruit juice most often as this delivers textures and fiber that juice does not.
  • Refrain from putting juice in a bottle or sippy cup or anything that allows a child to sip over a long period of time—this can be tough on tooth enamel.
  • Refer to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) juice maximums below but also keep in mind that nutritional balance is an average over the course of 1 to 2 weeks.

American Academy of Pediatrics Juice Recommendations

  • No juice if your child is under six months old
  • A maximum of 4 to 6 ounces per day for infants 6 to 12 months old, but served in a cup only, and not a bottle
  • A maximum of 4 to 6 ounces per day for children 1 to 6 years old
  • A maximum of 8 to 12 ounces per day for children 7 to 18 years old

If your child is drinking more juice than the AAP recommends, you can try replacing some of the juice with whole fruit or mixing fruit juice with a small amount of water or seltzer and slowly increasing the amount of water. Remember that your child's overall nutrition is the average of what they eat over the course of a week.

If juice is replacing eating a wider variety of foods, then it's a good idea to work to introduce more variety in place of some of the juice. On the other hand, if some days your child exceeds the recommendations but on other days they don't want juice, their intake likely averages out to the recommendations over the course of 1 to 2 weeks.

Are Sugar-Free Drinks OK for Kids?

It's very important to keep in mind that no matter what a child's body size is, the recommendations for feeding them are still the same. Each child should be encouraged to trust their body and certain foods shouldn't be limited or encouraged for one child but not for another simply based on body size. Sugar-free drinks are no exception.

Sugar-free drinks are often marketed with diet culture in mind and target and tout weight loss and fad diets. This marketing and language is certainly something that is important to keep out of the conversation if a child wants to try a sugar-free drink or if a family has these drinks in the house.

In general, sugar-free drinks offer few benefits to child or adults and research is ongoing on whether they may have health-related downsides. The AAP advice to focus on water as the go-to beverage is the advice for children of all sizes. If a child occasionally wants a diet soda or sugar-free juice because it's what they prefer, then these drinks could fit in as an occasional treat but should be treated the same as their sugar-containing counterparts. Additionally, this is the recommendation no matter what size a child is.

Added Sugars

You won't find added sweeteners other than concentrated fruit juices in 100% fruit juice. This is what is recommended by the AAP if a child does consume juice. However, some juices will add additional sweeteners. These added sweeteners would be considered "added sugars" and are required to be labeled for easy reference on most food labels.

Both the AAP and the American Heart Association recommend that children get less than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of added sugar each day. Again, a child's intake is more accurately an average over the course of 1 to 2 weeks, so consider that fact when navigating high sugar intake days.

Having added sugar labeled on packaged foods makes it fairly fast to check—especially related to drinks. A drink has added sugars if it is less than 100% juice or the label states that it is a beverage, cocktail, diluted juice, drink, punch, or soda. In addition to high-fructose corn syrup, other names for added sugars to look for on the ingredients list of drinks your kids might want include:

  • Brown sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • Glucose
  • Honey
  • Invert sugar
  • Lactose
  • Malt syrup
  • Maltose
  • Molasses
  • Raw sugar
  • Sucrose
  • Sugar
  • Syrup

Keeping an eye on general sugar intake can be helpful if it's kept as a "big picture" tool. For instance, if you notice that your child is opting for higher added sugar foods for each snack throughout the day, you might add another option to choose from to the snack choice mix.

But, in general, this would be the case when you focus on variety. And a focus on variety means less math for caregivers and more intuitive body trust and practicing making choices for kids. In addition, feeding kids is nuanced and the ultimate focus should be on raising kids who trust their bodies and don't relate food choices to moral value.

Each caregiver will need to navigate what is right for their kids. And if you feel like you could use some support in this, a registered dietician who specializes in working with families to support health relationships with food is a great tool.

A Word From Verywell

As a final note, many nutrition experts are looking not at what your children are getting too much of from drinking 100% juice and sweetened beverages, but what they are missing out on if these beverages begin to take the place of water and a variety of foods.

If your children are consistently drinking a lot of fruit juice or sugar-free drinks instead of eating a snack then the number and type of nutrients as well as flavors and textures they're being exposed to is limited. This is why a focus on what can be added is so important.

Offer children choices for snacks so they can opt for what sounds best to them and feel a sense of autonomy over the choice. If they're opting for sweetened beverages or 100% juice as snacks or meals, begin slowly engaging them in creating additional choices. Invite them to the store or into the kitchen to choose or prepare snacks.

And, if you feel like you need support in helping them make food choice that strengthens their relationship to their body, consider finding a registered dietician who specializes in helping families.

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3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Cozma AI, Sievenpiper JL. The Role of Fructose, Sucrose and High-fructose Corn Syrup in Diabetes. Eur Endocrinol. 2014;10(1):51-60. doi:10.17925/EE.2014.10.01.51

  3. Moynihan P. Sugars and Dental Caries: Evidence for Setting a Recommended Threshold for Intake. Adv Nutr. 2016;7(1):149-56. doi:10.3945/an.115.009365

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