Fruit Juice is a Target in the War Against Obesity
Some Minnesota doctors are recommending that fruit juice be eliminated from the WIC program, because it may be making kids fat.

Maura Lerner, Star Tribune
Last update: August 18, 2006 – 1:02 AM

The Minnesota Medical Association has opened a new front on the war on obesity.
The target: fruit juice.

The association, which represents 10,000 doctors, said that apple juice and orange juice and the like are to blame, in part, for the fattening of America's children.

And this week, it asked the federal government to drop all fruit juices from a subsidized food program for 8 million low-income women and children, including 130,000 in Minnesota.

"There's no real value of juice in a child's diet," said Dr. Sarah Jane Schwarzenberg, an obesity researcher and pediatrician at the University of Minnesota who is leading the charge to reform the WIC (Women, Infants & Children) program.

Contrary to popular belief, she said, even 100 percent fruit juice is not the moral equivalent of fresh fruit.
"Fruit juice has the same number of calories per ounce as pop, sometimes a little bit more," she said.

And while she said she doesn't believe juice deserves all the blame, she said the calories can really pile on when kids swig juice boxes at lunch, snack and dinner.

"Juice should be considered as a treat," she said, "the same way you might consider a candy bar."

Plan adds fruits, vegetables

Until now, WIC has supplied participants with fruit juices, but not fruits or most vegetables.

But last week, it proposed a major overhaul, including a reduction in the amount of juice supplied to children and the addition of fruits and vegetables to the WIC menu.

On Monday, the Minnesota Medical Association applauded the proposal but said it didn't go far enough.

"MMA physicians believe that the consumption of fruit juice contributes to obesity in children," Dr. David Luehr, the association's president, wrote in a letter to WIC's director. He urged the agency "to go even further and entirely eliminate juice from the list of WIC-eligible foods."

Susan Acker, a spokeswoman for the WIC program, which is based in Alexandria, Va., said only that "we welcome input and comment" and that the agency was "looking forward to hearing from all interested parties."

'Healthy in moderation'

Some, though, say the demonization of fruit juice is unfair.

"I would contend that juice, 100 percent juice, is healthy in proper moderation," said Marty Ordman, vice president of marketing and communications for the Dole Food Co., which sells fruit juice. "I just find it hard to believe that somebody would compare drinking 6 ounces of juice to drinking a 12-ounce can of sugar-loaded soda pop."

Schwarzenberg, who serves on the Minnesota Medical Association's obesity task force, said that even "100 percent fruit juice" can be hyper-caloric. With orange and apple juice, she said, manufacturers often mix in extra-sweet pear or grape juice to counter the natural tartness and appeal to children. "We get a lot of concentrated sugar calories that can contribute not only to obesity but also to cavities," she said.

A small amount, she admits, "is not going to throw them into obesity." However, she said, "many kids are drinking it through the day." Add in other nutritional lapses, like fast food, and "you get obesity," she said. "The only way that we can handle this is to start going after them one at a time."

Too strict?

Jean Kinsey, a University of Minnesota economist who served on a national advisory panel for the WIC program, was cool to the doctors' proposal.

"I would say it's probably not a good idea to cut off all juice," said Kinsey, co-director of the Food Industry Center, part of the College of Agriculture. "I mean, children do need fluids, too, and it's probably more nutritious than just drinking water."

Kinsey served on a panel of experts at the Institute of Medicine, based in Washington, D.C., which recommended in 2005 most of the changes that WIC is now adopting.

But overly strict limits can backfire, she suggested.

"I would rather have a child develop a taste for fruit juice than for soda pop as an alternative."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

2006 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.