How Kids’ Beverages Stay Sweet Without Sugar

These alternative sweeteners, and alternative product lines, are fighting the stigma of fruit juice.

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Child drinking glass of juice
Photo: kai keisuke (Shutterstock)

It’s been decades since the first time I tried a Capri Sun juice pouch, but I remember it fondly. Typically served at family gatherings and sometimes on school field trips, its sugary taste was captivating, its portability ensuring refreshment on the go. But now, as a parent of a six- and nine-year-old, I hear my fair share of messages about the downsides of these drinks.

Posters warning of tooth decay and childhood obesity have saturated pediatrician and dental offices. I’ve heard through the grapevine (pun intended) that giving my kids fruit juice regularly isn’t good for them. It is, after all, filled with sugar: a standard pouch of Capri Sun contains up to 13 grams. So what should a “responsible” parent or adult do?

There’s now an abundant selection of products on the market that hope to be the answer to that question, everything from “100% juice” to “no sugar added” options. Capri Sun, my beloved childhood juice, is now embracing the latest trend: monk fruit. Its newest iteration, which debuted this summer, boasts a 40% reduction in sugar, marketed as “the taste you love with less sugar.” But is monk fruit really a better choice for children (or adults)?

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What is monk fruit?

Grown in the mountainous regions of southern China, monk fruit, also known as luohan guo, was named after Buddhist monks who cultivated it 800 years ago. Monk fruit is 150 to 200 times sweeter than regular sugar, which means far less is needed to obtain the same level of sweetness. Its taste is similar to that of a melon rind, and it has zero calories.

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The fruit has been recognized as “generally safe” by the FDA and used to sweeten a variety of foods and beverages. It can also be used with other natural sweeteners, including stevia, allulose, and erythritol to make it taste more “natural.” The extract is found in a variety of products, including Chobani yogurt, Talenti gelato, Whole Earth sweeteners, and more.

To understand why more companies are now using monk fruit as an alternative sweetener, we must look at what sugar represents and what the data says about this sweet, sweet paradise of flavor. We must go back to the origins of fruit juice.

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The state of our sugar consumption

Fruit juice was once recommended as a source of Vitamin C and as a solution to constipation, which explains why my parents didn’t bat an eye when they gave me Capri Sun pouches and other similar products. But attitudes have shifted across the past decade or so, as the sugar content of such juices has come under harsher scrutiny.

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In 2012, LiveScience reported that kids drink too much juice, per the results of a University of Michigan survey. Then, in June 2017, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report about the pitfalls of fruit juice consumption, changing its recommendations in the process.

“Although juice consumption has some benefits, it also has potential detrimental effects,” researchers wrote. “High sugar content in juice contributes to increased calorie consumption and the risk of dental caries.They also added that the lack of protein and fiber in these juices could potentially lead to weight gain. These findings have led to some measurable changes in consumer behavior.

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“Americans have increasingly moved toward healthier consumption patterns, which has hurt traditional drinks high in calories, sugar and additives,” Dmitry Diment, senior analyst at New York-based IBISWorld, recently told Beverage Industry. Nowadays, people want the best of both worlds: something that tastes good but also keeps the sugar in check. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for beverage manufacturers.

How food and beverage brands respond to changing tastes

In recent years, more juice companies have begun to reformulate their products and remove sugars completely as a way to keep consumers engaged and buying.

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For example, the beverage brand Hint released a line of unsweetened flavored water boxes to cater to juice-box-drinking kids. And in 2019, Juicy Juice came out with a trio of new juice products with no added sugar, no high-fructose corn syrup, and no artificial sweeteners. Finally, Uncle Matt’s Organic, a juice brand based in Florida, also introduced a variety of no-sugar-added juices, including lemonade and strawberry lemonade.

With these new “innovations” in fruit juices, it makes me wonder if I should just flavor my child’s water with fresh lemon or strawberries instead. Wouldn’t that be cheaper than buying a juice box?

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Long gone are the days when I’d drink Capri Sun pouches all afternoon. These days, the most refreshing option in my book is simply… ice water.