The Medicine Cabinet: Ask the Harvard Experts
Q: I just heard that children younger than 12 months of age should not get juice. I always thought natural juice was healthy. Why the change?
A: Like you, many people think of juice as a healthy drink, something that should be part of a child’s diet. But it turns out that it’s not necessarily healthy at all — and doesn’t need to be part of a child’s diet.
Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently came out with the recommendation that children under a year should not drink juice at all. This is a change from the previous recommendation, which was that children shouldn’t have juice before six months of age.
This recommendation may seem surprising, but here are some reasons why experts aren’t wild about juice.
It doesn’t have much nutritional value. Yes, there are some vitamins in it, and the ascorbic acid in some juices can help the body absorb iron. But children are always better off eating the fruit (or vegetable) itself instead of the juice. It’s healthier and has fiber the body needs.
Juice can lead to cavities, especially when children carry around bottles or sippy cups and drink little bits all the time. When children do this, there is cavity-causing sugar in the mouth all the time.
It can lead to too much weight gain. Our bodies are designed to eat our calories, not drink them. We don’t get filled up by juice, no matter how many calories of it we drink.
Juice can also interfere with the absorption of some medications. And it can lead to diarrhea, especially in toddlers.
It’s true that juice is healthier than, say, soda. But when it comes to overweight and cavities, juice isn’t all that different. The point is simply that children don’t need it. Water and unsweetened milk (or fortified alternative milks for those with allergies or lactose intolerance) are the only beverages a child really needs. The better way to get whatever nutrition a juice might offer is to eat fruits and vegetables instead.
These are guidelines — and with any guideline, there may be exceptions (if your child is on an iron supplement, for example, your doctor may want you to give it with orange juice). If you have questions about this recommendation, or anything else about what your child should eat or drink, talk to your pediatrician.
(Claire McCarthy, M.D. is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and an attending physician at Boston Children’s Hospital. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)