Juice is an easy and convenient way for your kid to quench his or her thirst at school, on the playground or at home. But does a box or bottle of juice really live up to its reputation as a healthy, good-for-you beverage – or is it just too saccharin?

It can fill in the gaps

One hundred percent fruit juice is considered a nutrient-dense beverage, because it contains essential nutrients like vitamins A and C, folate, potassium, magnesium, and phytonutrients— organic components of plants that some studies suggest may prevent disease. Some juices are also fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

“Those are some of the nutrients that we should be eating more of,” said Diane Welland, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Juice Products Association.  “Especially for picky children who may not be eating enough food or may not be eating the right food, 100 percent fruit juice may be the only source of these nutrients.”

Depending on age, kids should be getting one to two cups of fruit each day and four ounces of juice can substitute for a serving of fruit, according to the USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. “One hundred percent fruit juice can actually help you meet the recommended daily servings of fruit a day,” Welland said.

According to a recent study in the journal Public Health Nutrition, children who drank juice consumed more nutrients than non-juice drinkers.  Some studies suggest that children who drink juice consume less fat and sugar, eat more fruit and have better diets. Welland suggested this might be because kids who drink fruit juice are most likely eating fruit as well. “Chances are they’re not going to have apple juice and a Cinnabon.”  

Whole fruit can also be expensive, especially if you eat organic. Plus, it’s not always accessible or available in certain communities.  Welland said juice can also be a time-saver for kids who have packed school schedules or for those who don’t have the dexterity to peel and eat fruit. “For those times, when it’s either not eat the whole fruit or have fruit juice, 100 percent fruit juice is the next best thing,” she said.

An apple is usually better than apple juice

“The problem is making a blanket statement for everyone,” said Dr. Laura Jana, a pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.  Jana said juice has its benefits, but there aren’t that many children who lack nutrients where drinking a lot of juice is necessary.

For children who have access to fresh fruit and eat balanced diets, juice is not necessary. “It’s essentially empty calories,” Jana said.  

Although juice doesn’t have added sugar – because the volume is larger – the amount of sugar, calories, and carbohydrates in juice is more than if you were to eat the fruit whole. Take an orange: Juicing it will yield just two ounces, whereas a serving of fruit juice is typically four to eight ounces. “The source of calories from the volume that you’re consuming essentially is more, because you’re likely going to consume more volume,” said Jessica Crandall, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Even if there’s pulp or you juice at home, juice doesn’t have fiber, which is a problem for many kids who aren’t getting enough fiber already.

Drinking juice also caters to a sweet preference, and it could become a substitute for eating nutritious, whole foods. “You give a kid a big glass of fruit juice, and then they’re not as hungry for dinner,” said Jana, who is also the co-author of Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insight, Humor, and a Bottle of Ketchup.

The obesity link

Although some research suggests that drinking juice is linked to a lower obesity risk, other studies, like a recent Harvard School of Public Health study, suggests that people who increased their juice consumption gained more weight than people who didn’t.  

“Usually liquids don’t signal our brains that we’re satisfied and full,” Crandall said. So when those liquid calories add up, weight gain and obesity becomes a concern.

Drinking juice can also cause a spike in blood sugar, which is not a good thing for kids at risk for obesity and diabetes.

What you should know

Experts agree that the primary source of nutrients in your child’s diet should come from whole fruits and vegetables, but small amounts of juice are OK if they’re not eating enough whole fruit. Got a picky eater? Try new recipes or creative ways to present fruit so they’ll be more inclined to eat it.

Making homemade juice is great, but if that’s not doable, buy store brands that say “100 percent fruit juice with no added sugar” on the label. You can also dilute four ounces of juice with four ounces of water to dial down the sugar.

It’s also important to pay close attention to serving sizes. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under 1 year old should not drink juice. For children 1 to 6 years old, no more than four to six ounces of juice and for children 7 to 18, no more than eight to 12 ounces per day.

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, health, food and women’s issues and a mom. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.