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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A change to a U.S. program that provides food and medical visits to many infants, children and pregnant women succeeded in reducing the amount of juice bought overall, according to a new study.
Researchers examined the impact of an October 2009 change in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children - known as WIC, which cut the monthly allowance of 100 percent juice by more than half.
"Basically the program achieved its goals. Less juice ideally means less sugar consumed by these little kids," said Tatiana Andreyeva, the study's lead author and the director of economic initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
What's more, Andreyeva told Reuters Health that their study showed that WIC recipients didn't end up buying more juice with their own money to compensate.
"We expected a reduction in juice, but we didn't know if we'd see a switch to other beverages," she said.
Pregnant women, new mothers, infants and children up to age five are eligible for WIC as long as they meet certain requirements, including financial need. In 2011, about 9 million people received the benefits every month, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Before the change, WIC recipients were able to buy 288 ounces of juice per month, but that far exceeded the daily recommended amount of 4 ounces for young children. The Institute of Medicine suggested bringing juice and other WIC food in line with recommendations. Now, WIC recipients are allowed to purchase 128 ounces of juice.
The concern, according to Andreyeva, is that too much juice can contribute to weight gain.
"In terms of calories it's not much different from soda," she said.
For the new study, published in the journal Pediatrics, she and her colleagues compared WIC purchases from January through September in 2009 (before the change) to WIC purchases one year later (after the change) at a supermarket chain with more than 60 locations in two New England states.
Before the change, the researchers found WIC recipients were buying about 238 ounces of juice per month. That fell by about 44 percent after the change in October 2009. That was matched by about a 14 percent increase in juice purchases using other non-WIC money.
Overall, the researchers found monthly juice purchases fell by about a quarter, to 182 ounces per month.
Andreyeva noted that the change was cost-neutral.
"It didn't cost taxpayers any extra money. They reduced some food and provided other foods instead," she said, adding that families were allowed to buy more fruits and vegetables.
Shannon Zenk, who has researched the WIC program but was not involved with the new study, said the results are intriguing and support past research that found stores are offering more fruits and vegetables since the change in 2009.
"One thing we already know from the studies that have already come out is the change in the retail environment," said Zenk, from the College of Nursing at University of Illinois at Chicago.
The results of the new study are limited, however. The researchers only looked at one supermarket chain in two New England states and they can't say if the WIC recipients were actually eating better diets.
Still, Andreyeva said the results show policy changes can be effective.
"What it shows here is they have a good outcome and it didn't cost taxpayers anything extra," she said.
SOURCE: bit.ly/18l9aZi Pediatrics, online April 29, 2013.