Let 'Em Go Thirsty

It's official now. Kids can't drink anything.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended this week that kids' fruit juice intake be limited. The academy says too much fruit juice might cause malnutrition, undernutrition, diarrhea, flatulence, abdominal distention, and tooth decay.

Scary stuff. How about alternative beverages? Soft drinks? Sorry. Government nannies at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise against children consuming soft drinks.

Milk? Nope. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a consort of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is conducting an aggressive national campaign alleging that milk is a health risk to children.

Water? You'd have to be pretty brave. The Environmental Protection Agency claims the arsenic in our drinking water causes cancer.

Thirst and dehydration seem to be the safest — or at least the most politically correct — alternatives. This recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is only one of several recent salvos in the junk science-fueled war over what kids eat and drink.

The crux of the academy's alarm over fruit juice is that children drink too much of it. Much of this concern stems from the research of Columbia University's Barbara Dennison.

Dennison reported in the January 1997 issue of Pediatrics, the official journal of the academy, that children who consume more than 12 ounces of fruit juice per day tend to be obese and short.

But Dennison's study was very small. It included 168 children, only 19 of whom reportedly consumed more than 12 ounces of fruit juice. The analysis was based on only a week's worth of dietary data.

The weak statistical results did not prove in the least that fruit juice consumption contributed to childhood obesity — and Dennison never did explain how fruit juice could cause a child to be short.

The academy also advises that "prolonged exposure of the teeth to sugars in juice is a major contributing factor to dental caries," or tooth decay. Ironically, though, fruit juice consumption has skyrocketed while the incidence of tooth decay has dramatically declined.

To the extent that tooth decay remains a problem, proper dental hygiene helps. Sadly, a new study by Harvard researchers reports that between 1996 and 1998, almost 60 percent of children younger than 18 years of age did not have an annual visit to the dentist. Incredibly, the academy only advises dental visits for children at risk and as advised by a dentist.

You might think that, if sweet drinks were problematic, the academy would have picked on soft drinks first. Soft drinks, after all, often have little nutritional value.

But scientists have yet to link soft drink consumption to health problems in children. For example, only three studies so far have examined soft drinks and childhood obesity, each producing mixed results. The most recent study, an April 2001 study by Georgetown University researchers, reported no association between soft drink consumption and childhood obesity.

Since the academy has yet to advise against soft drink consumption, decrying fruit juice seems somewhat bizarre.

Fruit juice tastes good and provides children with needed vitamins, minerals and fluids. It can substitute for fruits that often aren't available to children or that many children shun. Given these benefits and the physician's oath, "First, do no harm,"  the academy's attack on fruit juice intake is tantamount to malpractice.

The academy apparently aspires to the ranks of the food-and-beverage police — the self-anointed watchdogs of our dietary habits. The food-and-beverage police, typified by dietary activists at the Center for Science in the Public Interest who bemoan sweetened drinks as "liquid candy," presume to know more about diet than everyone else. Though they often have no credible science to support their advice, they believe they should be allowed to dictate what our children eat and drink.

The food-and-beverage police aren't satisfied with scaring parents as a means to control what children eat. Many products now served in school cafeterias also are being criticized as unhealthy.

Milk, red meat, eggs, cake, cookies, ice cream, Jell-O, lemonade, fried foods, and more are under attack. But should schools shun tasty and fun foods that kids are willing to eat?  Should schools go vegetarian? Should only purified water be served?

Children's health and nutrition has never been better. Ironically, the food-and-beverage police keep finding more and more to worry about, however trivial and nonsensical. 

It's enough to make you ask the nutritional nannies, "How 'bout a nice Hawaiian Punch?"

Steven Milloy is a biostatistican, lawyer, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and publisher of JunkScience.com. He can be reached at milloy@cais.com.