Former US first lady Michelle Obama is a longtime children’s nutrition and health advocate. Let’s Move!, her program to help America’s notoriously unhealthy kids eat better and exercise more, was her signature initiative while in office. Obama dedicated much time and energy to exercising with children (including through a custom Beyoncé video!), planting vegetables at the White House to inform families around the country about healthier meal choices, and lobbying to expand access to fruit and vegetables.
Now she’s turning her passion into a business. “If you want to change the game, you can’t just work from the outside, you’ve gotta get inside; you’ve gotta find ways to change the food and beverage industry itself,” Obama said at the Wall Street Journal’s recent Future of Everything conference. Because the food industry has squeezed “food out of our food” in search of profits, leaving lower-income families with increasingly unhealthy options, she decided to co-found a company to provide healthier choices for children: PLEZi Nutrition.
PLEZi’s first product, available at Target and Walmart, is a fruit drink that, as its label says, “contains real fruit juice.” According to promotional materials, PLEZi’s drinks—which come in four flavors—have no added sugar, are rich in fiber, and contain 75% less sugar than “leading fruit juices.” That’s all important information, but so is this: PLEZi’s flavored drinks are basically sweet, sugary beverages—less sugary than most others, but still.
No added sugar doesn’t mean no sugar
PLEZi’s drinks boast no added sugar, which sounds great. But not only isn’t that the same as no sugar, it also doesn’t make the product any healthier than if the sugars were added.
Added sugars aren’t intrinsically worse than sugars naturally occurring in a product. “The target nutrient is the total amount of sugar,” says Daniel Zaltz, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s school of public health, and the incoming food policy postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto. American children consume excess sugar, often from beverages, and it makes no difference whether that sugar is added or naturally occurring in a product.
Think about it this way. A spoonful of honey contains about 17 grams of sugar. Eating it raw means eating no added sugar, because it occurs naturally in the honey. But if the honey is processed into another product, its sugar is considered added. The total, and the outcome, haven’t changed: It’s still the same 17 grams of sugar, with all the energy (about 66 kilocalories) that comes from it.
Some countries, like Canada, have addressed the ambiguity of added sugar sources by requiring all to be labeled as sugar, rather than with a potentially misleading name like “concentrated pear juice” or “date paste,” Zaltz says.
Now, fruit naturally contains sugar, which child nutrition experts think is fine as long as it’s consumed in the form of fruit. Things change, however, when it comes to juice, because the sugar is much more concentrated. For example, you need to squeeze about three fresh oranges to make one cup of juice. While oranges are delicious, it’s unlikely that a child would eat three in a sitting as a quick refreshment in the same way they would enjoy a glass of juice.
Not only that, but by drinking the juice instead of eating the fruit, we skip the fiber, which is usually very good for us (that’s why PLEZi adds some). “Juice is not necessary in the diet of a child,” Zaltz says, given that it offers no specific nutritional benefits that can’t be derived from other, better foods.
Even though PLEZi contains less sugar than regular juice, the amount is still significant. Two or three small bottles could be enough to exceed the daily recommended limit for many children, considering the unfortunate reality that the vast majority of American kids don’t exercise at healthy levels. This is especially true for younger ones, and while PLEZi’s drinks are for children aged six or older, the current packaging and marketing don’t make that clear.
Healthier doesn’t mean healthy
PLEZi may well be a healthier alternative to other fruit drinks. Capri Sun, for instance, has more than twice as much total sugar—although, to the point Obama makes that families are forced to choose less healthy options due to budget constraints, 10 Capri Sun pouches cost $2 less than four PLEZi bottles at full retail price.
But there is a difference between healthier and healthy, if not one that is readily grasped by parents, or even educators. In fact, fruit drink makers often market their offerings in a way that gets them mistaken for products that benefit a child’s health, when they’re simply less detrimental than others. PLEZi does this too, by exploiting misleading labels like “no added sugars” and promoting itself as “worry-free.”
The sweet taste of...sweet
Something else about PLEZi could end up contributing to the very problem it wants to address—one perfectly summed up by a child who took part in a Washington Post review of its drinks. “Can I have some more?” they asked.
That is what sweet taste does to you, and PLEZi achieves it with non-added sugar and the noncaloric sweeteners stevia and monk fruit extract. Sweet begets sweet. “The consumption of products containing sugar and noncaloric sweeteners in early childhood is linked with later-in-life choice of a sweeter diet,” Zaltz says.
This is exactly why the food industry Michelle Obama hopes to disrupt makes things taste sweet, and why a product like PLEZi, no matter how well-intentioned, will just get small children accustomed to consuming sweets, and craving more. PLEZi is a for-profit company, so it seems safe to assume that its investors, who include a private equity firm, will be happier if people consume more of its drinks.
The company, however, sees it as more of a realistic approach. “While we know that water or milk is always the best option for kids, and we’ll continue to recommend that first, kids who are used to drinking soda or 100% fruit juice daily are not going to easily make that switch,” said in a statement Shale Wong, a pediatrician and professor of pediatrics and family medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, who is an advisor to PLEZi. “We in the public health community have been pleading for decades to only drink water and frankly that hasn’t worked.”
Update: Quartz updated the story with comment provided by PLEZi.