The War on Sugar Hits the Juice Box

With pediatricians and parents increasingly concerned about the health risks of juice, a growing crop of watered-down juice-box alternatives are coming to store shelves. But will kids drink them?

By  Anne Marie Chaker Aug. 18, 2019 9:00 am ET

When the juice boxes are served at children’s birthday parties, Gabrielle Gard hands her son his own box—of flavored water.

The 28-year-old accountant in Lakeland, Fla., doesn’t want her son Asa, almost 2, drinking real juice. To help limit sugar, she digs into her bag for a juice-box alternative: Hint brand “fruity water,” whose label promises it has “no juice, no sugar” but is “fun, delicious, parent approved.”

“He pulls out the little straw—it’s like the little boxes he would enjoy anywhere else,” she says.

The war on sugar has come to the juice box. As pediatricians warn of the health risks of juice and parents worry about sugary beverages, more substitutes are hitting grocery-store shelves. While they still come in the same box-with-straw containers, the drinks are typically watered-down formulations with smaller amounts of juice or a non-sugar flavoring.

In April, Harvest Hill Beverage Co.’s Juicy Juice brand launched Juicy Waters, a flavored water. Lassonde Pappas and Co.’s Apple & Eve launched Cool Waters this spring, sweetened with “a touch of organic real fruit juice,” the company says. Hint water is now appearing in the juice box aisle, with its new lunchbox size fruity waters.

Whether kids will go for it is another question. Desiree Tanguma, a 37-year-old revenue manager for a hotel chain in Forney, Texas, says her sons Maddox and Marcus, ages 6 and 9, favor Capri Sun pouches in flavors such as tropical or lemonade. She has tried watered-down versions of juice boxes, but the boys protested. “They can taste the difference,” she says. 

Juice was once considered a healthy part of growing up, but parents and other consumers have increasingly soured on it as health concerns have grown. Consumption of juice, measured in gallons sold, declined 10% in 2018 from five years earlier, according to New York-based Beverage Marketing Corp.

Sixty percent of parents with children ages 3 to 11 said they are actively trying to reduce sugar in their households, according to a survey conducted this month of about 2,000 parents by Pittsburgh-based polling firm CivicScience. Thirty-eight percent said they are buying less juice than last year, and only 22% said they still pack some type of fruit juice in their children’s school lunches.

Juice has a long history in the annals of parenting—with moms and dads who served glasses of OJ at breakfast or to combat colds, says Jean A. Welsh, a professor of pediatrics at Emory University. “It was a way of taking an orange and making it more readily available and easy to consume,” she says.

Now, doctors worry “it’s a gateway drink,” she says. Children’s palates can get used to the sweetness—and then want more, she says. And the sugar in juice can cause a spike in blood sugar, often followed by a crash, she adds. In 2017, the American Academy of Pediatrics expanded its warning on juice, saying it shouldn’t be served to children under 1 year of age, and limited amounts for older children.

Food consultants say adults’ concerns about sugar for their own health are trickling down to how they feed their children. “Everywhere we look, the parents of children are getting messages about reducing their own sugar,” says Kara Nielsen, vice president of trends and marketing at CCD Innovation, an Emeryville, Calif.-based food consultancy. Trends in grown-up beverages such as flavored sparkling water and unsweetened coffees and teas reflect this, she says.

For kids, companies have made efforts at reformulations without giving up on juice flavor with varying degrees of success. Sales of Capri Sun’s Roarin’ Waters, a line of 30-calorie flavored-water pouches that launched in 2011, were up 3.1% for the year ending Aug. 3, says Kraft Heinz.

Two years ago, Washington, D.C.-based Rethink Brands launched Rethink Kids Water, flavored with the “essence” of fruit, from their oils and peels. But the company soon found that flavored water was too much of a jump for kids who have already been drinking juice.

“We came out aggressively. Zero calories, zero sugar. We were hopeful we could drive them all the way to zero in an afternoon, but the reality is you can’t,” says Rethink president Todd Fletcher. Repeat purchases were low, he says.

One portent was the reaction of Mr. Fletcher’s own children, 10-year-old Quinn and 8-year-old Lane. “They liked ‘daddy’s water,’ but they liked it most when they were genuinely thirsty,” he says. 

So the company this spring launched Juice Splash—a 5-calorie beverage formulated with juice concentrate and sweetened with monk fruit—as a “bridge product,” he says. It’s aimed at kids older than 4 who have already gotten used to juice boxes and aren’t ready to transition to flavored water. The company still offers Kids Water, but says it works best for children under 4 whose parents don’t already give them juice.

Hint launched its flavored waters in a juice-box format this spring. Founder Kara Goldin is betting that parents have already been purchasing Hint for themselves—and serving it to their children at home. Ms. Goldin says it was a challenge to convince grocery stores to stock her product next to the mainstream brands. She told them that if they wanted to attract more health-conscious consumers, “then you need to have products like mine,” she says. Now Hint Kids boxes are in 7,000 stores, including chains such as Albertsons and Harris Teeter. Eight-packs with pictures of blackberries and watermelons on them sell for around $7.

Harvest Hill’s Juicy Juice has been experimenting with ways to dilute juice for several years. Last year, it introduced Splashers Organic, a reduced sugar juice with 9 grams of sugar per pouch. Its Juicy Waters, which launched this spring and comes in a traditional 6.75 ounce juice box form, represents the other end of the spectrum—mainly water with a touch of lemon juice concentrate and flavoring. “You can’t get any more watery,” says chief marketing officer Ilene Bergenfeld.

Lassonde’s Apple & Eve tested its water-based concept last year, using different formulations, before settling on the final formula with 20 calories or less. “A lot of thought went into making sure parents were happy and that kids would approve and drink Cool Waters,” says senior director of innovation Jamie Bradford.

“The thought here was never that it was going to replace 100% juice,” says Ms. Bradford. Still, “sometimes [plain] water doesn’t cut it. This gives them a little more taste and deliciousness.”