Fruit Juice for Health?

If you ask a bunch of parents if they let their toddler or preschool aged kids drink soda, I’m guessing the majority would either say never or only on special occasions.  But when it comes to juice, the answer changes dramatically.  Juice is given to children – babies! – all the time.  Nevermind birthday parties and other celebrations where juice is often more easily accessible than water; fruit juice has acquired such a health halo that in many households, it’s available throughout the day, and some schools and camps even get in on the action by regularly offering large servings of juice to kids.

So what’s the problem?  Fruit has many wonderful benefits for us including fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients present in whole foods that we are only beginning to understand, all together in a perfectly sweet package.   It must follow, then, that juice derived exclusively from fruit is a good choice for our kids, right?

Not so fast.

Just because something is derived from fruit does not make it healthy.

Let’s take apple juice as an example and talk about how it is made.  First, the apples are chopped into tiny pieces and pressed to remove as much of the juice as possible.  The solids that are left behind include the skin and the pulp, which contain a lot of the apple’s beneficial vitamins and the vast majority of fiber and pectin, both critical not only for our bodies to function properly, but also help to us to know how much we’re eating and regulate fullness.  Next, the juice is filtered to remove any last remnants of the solids (and any nutrients they might contain).  Finally, the juice is pasteurized, a heating process which kills any potentially dangerous bacteria, but can also damage some of the remaining nutrients.  The final product contains all of the sugar in the original fruit but only a very small portion of the nutrients we get when we eat a whole apple.

In fact, if you take the final juice product and remove some of the water, you’re left with fruit juice concentrate, which is categorized by the USDA as an added sweetener, just like table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and honey.  You also get a more space efficient product that can be stored and then watered down to recreate the juice that we drink.

Did you catch that?  If you press the juice out of a fruit and concentrate it by removing additional water, our government considers that to essentially be the same thing as sugar.  But if you add that water back in, now it’s considered a healthy drink, equivalent to fruit, that should be consumed by children (and adults) to meet our nutritional requirements.  This makes no sense.

The fact is, fruit gets its sweetness from naturally occurring sugars (primarily a simple sugar called fructose) which, at the molecular level, are very similar to the other sweeteners in our diets.  Fruit in its whole food form is healthy because of all of the nutrients the sugar comes packaged with, but without those nutrients, fruit juice, even 100% fruit juice, is just sugar water.

A lot of research recently has suggested that sugar, and fructose in particular, might be highly damaging to our bodies, with links to Type II diabetes, weight gain, unhealthy cholesterol levels, heart disease, and tooth decayI find this incredibly concerning, but even if you think sugar is harmless, at a minimum I hope we can all agree that straight sugar is nothing more than empty calories, meaning it provides calories, but does not provide us with any valuable nutrients, and therefore should be kept to a minimum.

At this point you might be thinking “ok, juice doesn’t have all of the nutrients that are in the whole fruit, but at least it’s lower in sugar than a soda, right?”  Unfortunately, no such luck.  Eight ounces of Coca Cola Classic has 27 grams of sugar (nearly 7 teaspoons) and 100 calories.  Eight ounces of Mott’s Natural Fresh Pressed 100% Apple Juice has 27 grams of sugar and 110 calories – this is virtually identical to the Coke!  Even more, 8 ounces of Santa Cruz Organic White Grape Juice has 37 grams of sugar and 160 calories – 37% more sugar and 60% more calories than Coke.  ALL of these choices have zero protein, zero fiber, and less than 2% of vitamins and minerals listed on the Nutrition Facts label.

(As a side note, you might notice that some brands of juice do have significant amounts of Vitamin C, calcium, and/or Vitamin D – these are only present because these juices have been fortified.  If you are looking for supplements, you can just take a multivitamin and save the extra sugar and calories in the juice).

We’ve now established that juices, even those made from 100% fruit, are high in sugar and low in nutrients.  To me, that’s enough of an argument to drink them sparingly, but there’s more.

Research has demonstrated that we tend to develop preferences for the foods we’re presented with the most, which is why kids around the world learn to love whatever exotic (to us!) cuisine is native to that area.  When it comes to juice and other sweet beverages, regular consumption teaches us to prefer sweet drinks with our meals, at the expense of water, which seems so boring by comparison.  As a result, juice leads to a lifetime of drinking sports drinks and sweet tea and frappuccinos and soda, along with all of the negative health impacts of all of that excess sugar in our diets.

Even more concerning, our bodies do not recognize beverages as calories in the same way they recognize foods that we chew, so we tend to consume these beverages in addition to our normal food intake, leading to excess caloric consumption and weight gain.

So, what to do?  Let’s start by putting juice in its place as an infrequent indulgence, teaching our kids that juice is something to be enjoyed in small amounts on occasion in rotation with other sweets.  But on a daily basis, the drink of choice should be the same one that has been hydrating us perfectly since the beginning of time – water.

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