Though juice was once a cornerstone of a balanced breakfast, its place at the table has been looking a bit precarious these days. Concerns over excess sugar and calories have led many parents to stop buying it–especially after a 2017 recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which said juice provides no nutritional benefit to babies before their first birthday. Even older kids should limit their intake to minimize the risk of weight gain and tooth decay, according to the AAP.
But is a glass of OJ really a big deal? While limiting sugar and calorie consumption is important, Dr. Wanda Abreu, a pediatrician at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, says the issue is more about what juice often replaces. Kids are “better off just eating the fruit itself,” she says.
Juice contains the same vitamins and natural sugars found in whole fruit but lacks the satiating fiber that aids healthy digestion and makes an apple or orange a satisfying snack, Abreu explains. As a result, juice is less filling and easier to overconsume than real fruit, and it delivers a hefty dose of sugar straight to the bloodstream–all of which can lead to weight gain. Plus, if young kids drink juice all day from a bottle or sippy cup, it coats their teeth in cavity-causing sugars, the AAP says.
If buying fresh fruit is too costly or inconvenient, Dr. Matt Haemer, a pediatric nutrition specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, recommends offering frozen or unsweetened canned versions over juice. “It’s about establishing a behavioral pattern long-term … and attempting to improve what we have currently: an epidemic of children growing up in our country for whom it’s not normal to eat fruits and vegetables,” he says.
Still, Abreu says parents shouldn’t feel guilty if their kids drink the occasional glass of juice. Parents should look for 100% fruit juices, not “fruit drinks” or juice cocktails, which typically contain added sugars on top of those found naturally in fruits. And the AAP offers recommendations by age: no juice at all for babies; no more than 4 oz. per day for toddlers; up to 6 oz. per day for kids ages 4 to 6; and up to 8 oz. per day for older kids.
“Are there better options? Yes,” Abreu says. “But we don’t live in a perfect world, so you kind of just do the best you can.”
This appears in the September 16, 2019 issue of TIME.