Michelle Obama’s new children’s juice would fall foul of the healthy school meal program she herself lobbied for.
The former First Lady’s avid campaigning 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 drinks that limit the permited types to milk, water, or 100 percent juice in 2014.
That would likely disqualify the company she co-founded – Plezi Nutrition – from being able to be provided in US schools.
The drinks, which come in four flavors, have no added sugar, are rich in fiber, and contain 75 percent less sugar than ‘leading fruit juices’, making them a far more appealing alternative to parents.
But healthcare expers have pointed out that ‘healthier’ does not necessarily mean healthy, and at the end of the day, children will still clamor for more of the sugary drinks.
Mrs Obama co-founded Plezi Nutrition to create drinks that she says are a lower-sugar alternative to steer children away from sugary drinks
Plezi Nutrition drinks contain less sugar that popular sodas and fruit juices, but they are not 100 percent juice
While they contain no added sugar, the juice content is almost exclusively from concentrate, which typically contains less nutritional value than whole fruit juice (hence the addition of fiber).
The drinks also contain plant-based sweeteners stevia leaf extract and monkfruit which were believed to be a healthier alternative to sugar, though the World Health Organization issued new guidance this week urging people to avoid stevia.
Massachusetts pediatrician Mary Beth Miotto told Bloomberg: ‘Plezi tropical punch has no ADDED sugar but has 6 [grams] sugar & juice concentrates.
‘We don’t know the final word on artificial sweeteners but we know that drinking sweet beverages make kids want MORE sweet foods. Each box is more than the recommended daily intake for age 4-6.’
Plezi’s drinks contain six grams of sugar per eight-ounce bottle, 35 calories, two grams of fiber, and 100 percent of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C.
Other experts said Mrs Obama was mistaken for selling an ‘ultra-processed’ sugary drink to very young children.
Jerold Mande, an adjunct professor of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and CEO of Nourish Science, a nonprofit focused on nutrition, told Bloomberg: ‘She has been ill-served by advisers who convinced her to start by targeting 6- to 12-year-olds with a flashy, ultra-processed beverage that may not be any healthier than diet soda.’
Plezi’s CEO insisted that its product is an example of a good processed food and to ‘label Plezi an “ultra-processed food,” is at best cynical if not intellectually dishonest.’
Still, the drinks are far preferable to an eight-ounce can of Coke, which packs 26 grams of added sugar and 100 calories.
And while the drinks may not satisfy the standards that Mrs Obama helped implement, they appear to be healthier than some 100 percent fruit juices.
An eight-ounce serving of Mott’s 100 percent apple juice contains 120 calories, 28 grams of added sugar, and a full day’s serving of vitamin c.
And Welch’s 100 percent grape juice contains 140 calories per eight ounce serving and 35 total grams of sugar.
With a staggering 19 percent of American children qualifying as obese, Mrs Obama’s campaign for better pediatric nutrition was welcomed by most.
And there is some evidence that her push for improved nutrition and overall children’s health worked. The rate at which children were drinking sugar-sweetened beverages dropped from 11 percent in 2003 to three percent in 2016.
The overall decline in the number of young people reaching for sugary drinks marks a major win for nutrition experts and parents alike, who have long been concerned about the fact that almost half of the added sugar that children consume comes from beverages.
Exclusively choosing non-sugar sweeteners such as those used in the Plezi drinks may seem like a smarter weight-conscious choice. But they are not perfect and in fact may pack some considerable 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 from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel suggests stevia may upset the balance of beneficial gut bacteria.
There have also been 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, so makes you eat more.
And a study published in 2021 reported that children who drink a lot of sugary beverages may be at increased risk for memory problems down the road.
Researchers gave a sugary drink to rats and then, when they were adults, gave them two memory tests to compare how they performed.
They found the hippocampus, a region of the brain integral to memory function, was impaired in soda-fed rodents and this led to memory issues.
The Plezi drinks are currently on Target store shelves and will soon be in Walmart stores.