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Walk down the kids’ food aisle and you will see them by their dozens: brand name fruit juices meant to quench your little one’s thirst.

And it’s not only juices, but flavoured teas and fruit purées that purport to not only be nutritionally good for your growing child, but sure to have them as happy as tots can be.

But the subject of fruit juices for children is more nutritionally controversial than most parents realise, with experts favouring that toddlers be steered away as much as possible from sugary drinks.

“What parents do in the first two years (of their child’s life) matters more than they think. One of the best habits parents can teach their kids is to quench their thirst with water, but when children are regularly exposed to sugary drinks, water becomes less appealing,” said Gabriel Eksteen, nutrition science manager at the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa.

“One 275ml carton of fruit juice contains about 30 grams or seven teaspoons of sugar. Ideally, juice should not be a regular part of a toddler’s diet,” Eksteen said.

In light of National Nutrition Week this week, with the theme “Rethink your drink - choose water”, the national Department of Health is educating the public on the impact of sugary drinks.

The World Health Organisation and several other leading international health authorities agree added sugars should be limited to less than six teaspoons from all foods and drinks for children over 2, and avoided for those younger.

Apart from the well-established link between excessive exposure to sugary drinks and tooth decay in toddlers, the biggest concern is their role in increasing chances for future obesity.

Rebone Ntsie, the department’s director of nutrition, said: “The prevalence of obesity and non-communicable diseases in the country is alarming."

The South African Demographic and Health Survey last year found the prevalence of overweight children between 0-5 years old was 13.3% - 67.6% of women and 31.3% of men are overweight or obese.

“These findings show overweight and obesity among children and adults have increased from earlier surveys. Replacing sugary drinks with water can help,” said Ntsie.

A growing body in the field of paediatric nutrition is also advocating toddlers rather be exposed to wild fruits from early on than juice.

Earlier this year, the American Academy of Paediatrics issued a policy statement charging that fruit juice had no nutritional benefit to children under the age of 1 and should not be included in their diet.

“Parents may perceive fruit juice as healthy, but it is not a good substitute for fresh fruit and just packs in more sugar and calories. Small amounts in moderation are fine for older kids, but are absolutely unnecessary for children under 1,” wrote researcher, Melvin Heyman.

Even worse, Eksteen added there were now also toddler teas. “Tea is definitely not essential and often includes more sugar, which makes it no better than a sugary drink. Tea should not displace milk and water for children over 6 months of age. The proposed SA food-based dietary guidelines for children recommends not giving children tea before the age of 3, and then give it sparingly.

"Unsweetened dairy drinks such as milk or maas should be provided daily.”