Michelle Obama’s new children’s juice would conflict with the healthy school meals program she herself lobbied for.
The former First Lady’s fervent campaign during her husband’s eight years in the White House to improve the health of American children resulted in updated guidelines for school meals and beverages limiting the allowed types to milk, water or 100 percent juice in 2014.
That would likely disqualify the company she co-founded — Plezi Nutrition — from teaching in American schools.
The drinks, which come in four flavors, contain no added sugar, are rich in fiber and contain 75 percent less sugar than “lead fruit juices,” making them a much more appealing alternative for parents.
But health experts have pointed out that “healthier” doesn’t necessarily mean healthy, and at the end of the day, kids will still be clamoring for more of the sugary drinks.
Mrs. Obama co-founded Plezi Nutrition to create drinks she says are a low-sugar alternative to keep kids away from sugary drinks
Plezi Nutrition drinks contain less sugar than popular soft drinks and juices, but they are not 100 percent juice
While they contain no added sugar, the juice comes almost exclusively from concentrate, which typically has less nutritional value than whole fruit juice (hence the addition of fiber).
The drinks also contain plant-based sweeteners, stevia leaf extract and monk fruit, which were believed to be a healthier alternative to sugar, though the World Health Organization released new guidelines this week urging people to avoid stevia.
Mary Beth Miotto, Massachusetts pediatrician told Bloomberg: ‘Plezi tropical punch has no ADDED sugar but does have 6 [grams] sugar and juice concentrates.
“We don’t know the last word on artificial sweeteners, but we know that drinking sugary drinks makes kids want MORE sweet foods. Each box is more than the recommended daily intake for ages 4-6.”
Plezi’s drinks contain six grams of sugar per 8-ounce bottle, 35 calories, two grams of fiber and 100 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C.
Other experts said Obama was mistaken for selling an “ultra-processed” sugary drink to very young children.
Jerold Mande, an adjunct professor of nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and CEO of Nourish Science, a nonprofit focused on nutrition, told Bloomberg: “She’s been badly served by advisors who convinced her to target 6- to 12-year-olds first with a flashy, ultra-processed drink that may not be any healthier than diet soda.”
Plezi’s CEO insisted that his product is an example of a well-processed food and to call “Plezi an “ultra-processed food” is cynical at best, if not intellectually dishonest.”
Still, the drinks are far and away preferable to an 8-ounce can of Coke, which has 26 grams of added sugar and 100 calories.
And while the drinks may not meet the standards Mrs. Obama helped implement, they turn out to be healthier than some 100 percent fruit juices.
An 8-ounce serving of Mott’s 100 percent apple juice contains 120 calories, 28 grams of added sugar and an entire day’s worth of vitamin C.
And Welch’s 100 percent grape juice contains 140 calories per 8-ounce serving and a total of 35 grams of sugar.
With a whopping 19 percent of American children qualifying as obese, Mrs. Obama’s campaign for better childhood nutrition was welcomed by most.
And there is some evidence that her push for improved nutrition and the overall health of children worked. The rate at which children drank sugar-sweetened drinks dropped from 11 percent in 2003 to three percent in 2016.
The overall drop in the number of young people reaching for sugary drinks is a major win for both nutritionists and parents, who have long been concerned that almost half the added sugar that children consume comes from beverages.
Going exclusively for no-sugar sweeteners, such as those used in the Plezi drinks, may seem like a smarter weight-conscious choice. But they are not perfect and may even carry significant health risks.
Stevia, for example, is 200 times sweeter than sugar, so only a very small amount is needed. It contains zero calories and, like other artificial sweeteners, does not raise blood sugar levels.
But a 2020 study conducted by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel suggests that stevia may disrupt the balance of beneficial gut bacteria.
There are also suggestions from animal studies that sweeteners generally “trick” the brain, increasing your appetite — the brain thinks the body is processing sugar, but it’s not getting the energy it expects, causing you to eat more.
And a study published in 2021 reported that children who drink a lot of sugary drinks may be at increased risk for memory problems later in life.
Researchers gave rats a sugary drink, and when they reached adulthood, they took two memory tests to compare how they performed.
They found that the hippocampus, a part of the brain integral to memory function, was compromised in rodents fed soda and this led to memory problems.
The Plezi drinks are currently on Target store shelves and will soon be in Walmart stores.