Weaning off soda: Swap in veggie, fruit juices instead

Ask Cierra Hammons if she'd prefer a bottle of Coca-Cola over carrot juice and the 10-year-old provides a predictable response.

"I'd like the Coke. It's sweet," said Hammons, a fifth-grader at Carroll Fowler School in Ceres. "I'd say no thank you to the carrot juice. It doesn't sound as good as the Coke."

No surprise there, according to nutritionists, dietitians and others who focus on America's health issues.

"It's not just kids who like the sweet sodas, it's the adults, too," noted JoAnn Ratto, a nutrition program manager with the University of California Cooperative Extension. "Our society has developed a sweet tooth."

That craving is making Americans fat, a slew of health studies point out, and sugar-filled sodas are a reason.

They're heavy in calories and light in nutrition. The typical soda has no vitamins, calcium, iron or protein.

"They're empty calories because they don't provide any benefit," Ratto explained. "No one's saying stop drinking all soda, but we have to pull ourselves away from the idea that sodas are OK to drink all of the time."

It's a tough habit to break.

Americans like carbonated soft drinks. The Beverage Marketing Corp., an industry research and consulting group, said the average consumer chugged 54.2 gallons of soda in 2002, equal to 578 12-ounce cans.

A 20-ounce Pepsi has 250 calories. Many government studies suggest consuming 2,000 calories daily, so two sodas would be a quarter of that total.

So nutritionists and other health care professionals are urging consumers to grab and gulp healthier vegetable-based beverages. Most have fewer calories than soda and contain many of the vitamins and nutrients that keep bodies healthy.

"Be a good consumer and read the label, because vegetable juices have different ingredients," advised A. Jeffrey Wood, chairman of the department of pediatric dentistry at the University of the Pacific School of Dentistry. "A juice might have sugar, but it's often natural sugar in the vegetable."

It's becoming easier to drink healthy as producers such as Odwalla and Bolthouse Farms bring more vegetable-based products to market.

"We recognize the potential of the market, with vegetable juice as a healthy alternative," said Bob Borda, a sales manager at Bakersfield, Calif.-based Bolthouse. "The response we've seen shows that if consumers have access to fresh-tasting juice, they buy it."

Juices can cost more than soda -- $2.49 for a 15.2-ounce Odwalla carrot juice and 79 cents for an 11.5-ounce V8, for example. A 20-ounce soda typically costs from 75 cents to a dollar.

But health-care workers point to one statistic as a reason to pay more for juice and veggie drinks: Six of every 10 Americans are overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Soft drink companies say they are not the sole cause of America's battle of the bulge, but they recognize that they're an easy target.

"Obesity is a serious problem, but it's not effectively addressed by singling out a particular food or beverage," said Kathleen Dezio, a spokeswoman for the National Soft Drink Association. "A common sense approach is consuming your favorite foods in moderation and incorporating physical activity into your life."

That's not a problem for Hammons, a slender girl who exercises often, whether she's at home or at school.

"I don't drink too many sodas, because the sugar's not good for you," she said. "I like the taste of Dr. Pepper. That's my favorite soda."

Michael Chandler agreed with his schoolmate. A third-grader at Fowler, Chandler likes Coca-Cola, but he also drinks lemonade and cranberry juice.

"Tomato juice? It doesn't look good, not like a Coke," Chandler said. "Maybe when I get older I'll drink tomato or carrot juice. I see adults do that."

Vegetable juices are a good alternative, nutritionists say, because they can help wean consumers from the sweet taste of soda.

"Fruit juices tend to be sweet because many of them have additional sugars added," Wood said.

Adults can provide a proper example for children, Ratto said, by stocking the refrigerator with carrot and tomato juice, rather than soda pop.

Nutritionists suggest using a plastic bottle of carrot juice or can of V8 vegetable juice in the lunch bag, because the containers will remain intact if dropped.

"Carrot juice is a good choice because it has many natural sugars, so it can quench that desire," said Ratto, a registered dietitian. "A 6-ounce drink equals a serving of vegetables."

Health and nutrition aren't just about strong bones and firm bodies, either.

"Sugar converts to acid in your mouth, and that's when it damages teeth," Wood said. "If you drink sodas throughout the day, your mouth never has a chance to recover and the acid keeps eating at your teeth."

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