For young children with a mild "stomach bug," drinking diluted apple juice may be just as good as more expensive drinks that tout having electrolytes for preventing dehydration, a new study suggests.
The study involved nearly 650 children in Toronto, ages 6 months to 5 years, who went to the emergency room with diarrhea and vomiting, but were only mildly dehydrated. The children were randomly assigned to receive either diluted apple juice or an apple-flavored drink with electrolytes while they were in the ER.
When the children were sent home, those in the diluted apple juice group continued to receive diluted apple juice along with other beverages, such as sports drinks, to replace lost fluids. Those in the electrolyte group received only the electrolyte drink to replace lost fluids.
After a week, 9 percent of the children in the electrolyte drink group needed to go back to the doctor to receive fluids through an IV due to dehydration, compared with just 2.5 percent of the children in the diluted apple juice group. The frequency of vomiting and diarrhea episodes were about the same in both groups.
"In many high-income countries, the use of dilute apple juice and preferred fluids as desired may be an appropriate alternative to electrolyte maintenance fluids in children with mild gastroenteritis and minimal dehydration," the researchers, from the University of Calgary in Canada, wrote in a paper published online today (April 30) in the journal JAMA. [10 Ways to Promote Kids' Healthy Eating Habits]
The new findings challenge the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to routinely give children an electrolyte solution if they have diarrhea. But this recommendation was based on a smaller study conducted nearly two decades ago.
The benefit of dilute apple juice in the new study was greatest for children ages 2 and over, who are more accustomed to drinking apple juice and other sweetened drinks, the researchers said. Although the electrolyte solution in the new study was sweetened, children may still not find the drink that tasty — a previous study of a sweetened electrolyte solution found that 30 percent of children said they wouldn't want to drink the solution again.
It's been thought that drinks with a lot of sugar increase diarrhea, but recent studies (including the current one) suggest that, for children with minimal dehydration, consumption of any fluids is more important than the sugar content of the fluid, the researchers said.
The researchers noted that the new findings may not apply to lower-income countries, where children have a higher risk of complications from gastroenteritis.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.