Cranberry juice could be banned from school vending machines for its sugar content, under new guidelines from the Department of Agriculture aimed at reducing childhood obesity. The cranberry industry is (obviously) rallying against the regulations, saying that overall, it’s a healthy drink. There are sugary drinks with far more offensive ingredients than cranberry juice, it’s true, but typically it’s full of added sugar that could earn it status (er, stigma) alongside sodas and other sugary drinks. But for the most part, arguments over nutrition facts aren’t about the juice at all; they’re more about taking jabs at Michelle Obama and others’ efforts to get government involved in kids’ health.
Lawmakers from Massachussets, home of the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association, are urging for the new regulations to take the health benefits of cranberries into consideration, saying that they should be recognized by law as a healthy part of a balanced diet. In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, they explained:
Given the beneficial and scientifically proven health properties of cranberries, we believe there is a need to establish clear standards that recognize cranberries as a part of a healthy diet. We ask that you consider including a variety of cranberry juice and dried cranberry products in USDA’s food nutrition program so that children, seniors and adults served by these programs are not denied benefits unique to cranberries.
The point of the laws, of course, is to weed out foods and drinks that contribute to childhood obesity, particularly those containing sugar. And cranberry juice, as sold in most vending machines, is full of it. Typically, manufacturers add either sugar, corn syrup, or other juices (like naturally sweet apple and grape juice) to take the edge off the tart juices.
Is it causing childhood obesity? Probably not. (Much as I’ve always loved the stuff, I don’t think any child is guzzling multiple bottles a day, and unlike most other sugary drinks, cranberry juice isn’t full of chemicals, artificial flavors and colors.)
So I can understand why Massachusetts legislators would want to protect one of their state’s leading industries from taking a huge hit by the ban.
But that’s not all that’s going on. The case of cranberry juice probably wouldn’t even make big news, except for the fact that it’s already being used as the mascot for arguments against any kind of regulation at all. Opponents are already pointing a finger as far as Michelle Obama, whose “Let’s Move!” initiative they say is at fault for putting these kind of “silly” policies in motion. And while we can probably all agree that cranberry juice isn’t what’s making American fat, and might be worthy of a rare exception to rules protecting kids’ health, calling regulations off because of a single anomoly would just be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.