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Is That Right? Juicy Juice for Brain Development

The other day I blogged about the FDA's nabbing General Mills for inappropriately printing specific health claims (the kind reserved for drugs) on Cheerios boxes. I'm not the only observer who felt that, while the FDA was certainly within its rights to call out the cereal maker for not playing by the rules, the food-safety agency must surely have bigger fish to fry.

Since then I've been noticing a lot of package-label claims that, while perhaps technically accurate enough to pass FDA muster, could mislead consumers. So starting today, The Checkup blog will on Fridays feature "Is That Right?," a look at nutrition-related products and the ads that promote them.

First up: Nestle's new Juicy Juice Fruit Juice Beverage featuring 16 mg of the nutrient DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) per serving. A big blue banner across the front of the package screams, "Brain Development," while the smaller type just above the banner says, "DHA -- A Building Block for"...

Imagine the eager moms and dads who'll grab that Juicy Juice in hopes of making their kids just that much smarter. DHA, derived from fatty fish and other omega-3 fatty-acid-rich food sources, is indeed credited with promoting neurological health among babies, and it's been added to many infant formulas for nearly a decade, though there's no real science showing that DHA makes anyone smarter.

But in this instance, trumpeting DHA's brain-development capacity seems like a way to hawk a product that otherwise has very little nutritional value. My own pediatrician years ago steered me away from fruit juices -- even "100 percent" fruit juices such as Juicy Juice -- because they're essentially empty calories. An article in the journal Pediatrics last year lumped 100-percent fruit juices in with sodas as culprits in American kids' increasing tendency toward overweight. This particular Juicy Juice product has added water to keep the calories-per-ounce down, but except for a bit of potassium and the Vitamin C that's added to Juicy Juice, this "fruit juice beverage" has little to recommend it, nutrition-wise.

I hope you'll chime in with examples of iffy health claims you've noticed while watching TV, reading magazines and clipping coupons -- and, of course, your comments thereon!

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 15, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , General Health , Nutrition and Fitness , Prevention , The Business of Health  
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Okay, you have trashed juices. So give us some alternatives (that our kids will actually consume).

I mean, if fruit juices aren't the ticket, what else is there? Essence of Snickers bars?

And please don't lecture on the wonders of water or milk.

Face it. Our kids are not coming home and reaching for bottled water.
Or milk, for that matter.

It appears, as usual, we parents have done nothing right; unless you think trying to make your kid drink milk and water to the point that they are turned off of both - is someone's idea of success.

Posted by: theintrepidone | May 15, 2009 8:33 AM | Report abuse

Nestle's claim isn't near as misleading as General Mills' with Cheerios. It does, in fact, say "A building block for brain development" on the label; I think reading the fine print up above shouldn't be too much of a challenge (I don't like that it's there at all, but I don't think we're going to stop that kind of advertising anytime soon). Anyway, this post makes it out like the brain development claim is akin to Nestle claiming their product will make kids smarter -- but they're NOT claiming that! Yes, it yanks on parents' heartstrings, but it's still not the same as saying "JJ will make your kids smarter." Their claim is nothing like the Cheerios claim that eating their brand of cereal lowers cholesterol. Totally different ballgame. At the very least, JJ is making a true claim -- that DHA is in JJ, and DHA helps with brain development. No mention of smarts, IQ, Harvard or Mensa anywhere.

theintrepidone, I don't think anyone is telling you not to drink juice. The author is simply sharing information. Don't wait for others to tell you how to parent, just empower yourself with knowledge and do what you think is right (or, you know, just water down your juice...sheesh).

Posted by: cbr1 | May 15, 2009 9:18 AM | Report abuse

The main issue here is the belief (promoted heavily by the processed foods and supplement industries (and ultimately agribusiness) that adding any isolated nutrients suddenly makes a processed food product "good for you." This is a complex issue because it absolutely plays into the unreasonable "guilt" promoted by the self-righteous perfect-lifestyle (often, "super mom") crowd (see first comment) who imply that if you eat or give your kids anything questionable such as this, you are ruining their life.

Everyone needs to take a step back. The key to all of this is moderation. The general recent objection to fruit juices is that too many kids drink too much (e.g. the toddlers wandering around all day with a bottle full), and one reason is that the industry promotes them as "good for you" when indeed they have negligible nutritional value. This is just a fact. It doesn't mean we must eliminate all juices from our home.

Another fact is that business has a vested interest in continuing to promote the discredited myth that supplements are useful nutrition, when in fact there is loads of recent evidence is to the contrary. In fact, one paper just showed that antioxidant vitamin supplements actually interfere with the body's normal positive response to exercise.

Vitamins occurring naturally in real food, however, interact with lots of compounds in the food and would not have the same effects. Bottom line: we evolved to eat plants and animals, not "Juicy Juice" with an additive thrown in that is probably useless on its own. That's why most of your diet should be unprocessed foods, so you get proper nutrition (especially important during development). Supplements are a red herring at best, but as long as you are getting decent nutrition from real food (a la Michael Pollan) occasional bits of junk (= processed) food aren't going to matter.

Posted by: Bguhl | May 15, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

"most of your diet should be unprocessed foods, so you get proper nutrition"

Quoted for truth. Bguhl's got my vote for Food Czar.

If there's no junk food in your house, your kids won't eat junk food (not, at least, until they start buying their own food, which gives you many years to instill proper nutritional habits).

Posted by: DupontJay | May 15, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

The commercial for that "brain" juice is so cute. The Mom points at the girl's nose and says nose in 2-3 scenes. Then they pitch the juice with all it's benefits. At the end the little girl points at the dog's nose and says "nose". The dog then turns towards the camera with one of those dog-looks-puzzled looks.

If I didn't know that juices are empty calories I'd consider buying it!

I didn't keep a lot of juice around although I did always seem to be buying Gatorade. Now I've got kids who think every glass of water needs ice.

Posted by: RedBird27 | May 15, 2009 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Iffy health claims? I'd turn the question around. Find some claims--aside from ads for legitimate medical products--that aren't "iffy." I haven't seen or heard many health claims related to food or supplements on TV (including informercials) or radio that aren't "iffy" or downright quackery. Arthritis cures, vitamins or antioxidants that supposedly prevent disease, homeopathic immune system boosters ("Airborne"), probiotics. omega-3 fish oil capsules, gingko biloba "memory enhancers," etc., etc., etc. I wonder how many billions of dollars Americans spend each year on this junk.

Posted by: oldguy2 | May 15, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

theintrepidone: Why not water and/or milk? Thirsty kids will drink whatever you have in the house. Don't buy it and they won't drink it. (BTW, tap water works just as well as bottled.)

Posted by: copdoc | May 16, 2009 7:33 AM | Report abuse

Really?? Water and milk are bad? When I was a kid juice was a treat, because it was expensive. I didn't realize that had changed. Most people on planet earth are not drinking juice all day long. It never occured to me that kids were supposed to drink juice on a regular basis.

And how does a kid get turned off to drinking? Are there lots of dehydrated kids running around because there's only water of milk available?

Posted by: floof | May 16, 2009 8:24 AM | Report abuse

Try seltzer water with a splash of fruit juice. Most kids love it (my kids call it "grape soda") and it has far fewer calories and sugar that pure juice or soda or sports drinks.

Posted by: trace1 | May 16, 2009 9:27 AM | Report abuse

Sorry to bore you but my kids know they have two choices - water or milk. Kind of like I always knew we were having ice tea with dinner every night growing up. It was just a fact. I started very early with the rule and my kids don't question it. They get a capri sun in their lunch box on Fridays or something else sweet. I, like the new CDC chief, tell them what that stuff is straight up - "it's not real food", "empty calories", etc. etc. They don't argue.

Posted by: bkshane | May 16, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

Your children will consume what is available, just as copdoc says. I once heard a mother of a six year-old (obese) child say that her son would eat nothing but Cheetos. How could that be? I wondered. I've never heard of a six year-old driving to the grocery store and buying his own groceries, with his own money. The same goes for juice. I had a (former, childless and obese) pediatrician ask me whether my two-year old still-nursing toddler drank juice. I told her no, juice is full of empty calories, he drinks water and breast milk. She asked again, in a baby voice, "and juuuice?" I calmly repeated again that no, he does not drink juice because we do not buy it. The woman was clueless and we never went back.

Posted by: howdydoody1 | May 16, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

Modern food science could make a glass of juice that would fix everybody's everything. Drug companies HAVE the cure for all diseases right on their shelf. But will they sell it to use? Hell no! They would not make the gillions of dollars they make on us otherwise.

Posted by: wpmars | May 16, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

One of my one-year old twins is having trouble gaining weight, and his dr suggested juice as a quick, easy way to pack on some extra calories. This should tell you something- for people who are already a healthy weight (or overweight), it isn't a great thing to have in your daily diet in large quantities.

Posted by: floof | May 16, 2009 10:03 PM | Report abuse

If your kids *really* won't drink milk or water and, therefore, have won in the "I can rule my household" war with you, how about sugar-free kool-aid? It has added vitamin C, usually (at least the brand name version does) making it essentially equal, healthwise, to Vitamin-C enriched apple juice.

And if you really feel like sugar is better for them than the sugar-substitute used to sweeten the sugar free variety of the drink then make your kool-aid with 3/4 cup instead of a full cup of sugar and they probably won't know the difference. (or if it is an I like X sugar substitue better than Y buy the unsweetened kool-aid and sweeten it with your preferred sweetener).

Thirsty kids will eventually drink water. They really will. And milk, generally, should (in my opinion) be viewed as a "Food" not a beverage for children. I have one child who doesn't like to drink milk so she gets her daily dairy servings in sugar-free yogurt and milk on cereal instead.

Juice, except perhaps as above-referenced as a tool to help a child gain weight at the advice of his/her physician, has no real value or place in a child's diet. It should really be (again my opinion) considered a treat like candy, ice cream, and other sugary treats. Why do you think "juice glasses" are the smallest in the set? This is not something anyone ought to down in large quantity and if that small glass is a generally accepted "adult" serving of juice why on earth would you give huge sippee cups full of the stuff to kids all throughout a day?!? I've never understood why parents give juice to young children in the fist place, frankly.

Posted by: syeatts | May 19, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

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