Fruit juice’s halo has slipped recently, with some experts warning it contains as much sugar as fizzy drinks. Sue Quinn investigates whether we should be drinking it at all...
Although sales of fruit juice and smoothies have dipped in recent years, with the spotlight on sugar’s links to obesity and tooth decay, we’re still drinking large quantities of fruit juice and smoothies. We are also embracing the Californian trend for juicing at home, inspired by celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, and the perception that making drinks from all-natural ingredients is good for us. UK retailers report booming sales of juicers, including new generation machines that claim to make juice a healthier option by retaining more nutrients and fibre. Meanwhile, consumers are lapping up cookbooks and food websites featuring recipes for rainbow-hued drinks designed to make us glow with good health.
And yet, leading experts – including Government advisors on health policy – have questioned the wholesomeness of fruit juice. Public Health England, the agency responsible for the nation’s health, continues to review guidelines – for example, the guideline that including a glass of fruit juice counts as one of our recommended minimum five servings of fruit and vegetables a day. So why is there so much concern about fruit juice?
The problem with fruit juice...
Lack of fibre is the key problem. Juicing releases the sugars in fruit and removes the insoluble fibre; blending also releases the sugars and tears apart the insoluble fibre. Most of the sugar in fruit is fructose, which can only be processed by the liver. A small amount of fructose, in an apple for example, does us no harm because we consume it along with the fibre. Fibre protects us against the effects of fructose by slowing its absorption, and also makes us feel full. Fruit juice, on the other hand, is absorbed immediately, like all sugary drinks, as the fibre has been removed.
Some experts say that drinking fructose in liquid form stops the liver from doing its job properly, which is linked to a range of health problems, including obesity, type-2 diabetes and increased fat production, including in the liver itself.
Experts also maintain that fructose fools our brains into thinking we are still hungry – causing us to overeat – and is addictive, making us crave more. And the British Dental Association confirms a link between fruit juice consumption and tooth decay.
What the experts say...
Dr Robert Lustig, US obesity expert and author of Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar, is unequivocal. ‘'Calorie for calorie, fruit juice is worse for you than fizzy drinks'’ he told BBC Good Food. ‘'When you turn fruit into juice, you are losing the insoluble fibre, which is an essential nutrient and helps delay absorption of the sugar. Take the fibre away and you’re just drinking sugar and calories. There’s some vitamin C, but you would be better off taking a vitamin pill for that.’'
Dr Lustig points to research, published in the British Medical Journal in 2013, linking increased consumption of whole fruit, particularly blueberries, grapes and apples, to a decreased risk of type-2 diabetes. Greater consumption of fruit juice, on the other hand, was linked to a higher risk of the disease.
Dr Lustig is not a lone maverick. Dr Susan Jebb is the Government’s leading advisor on obesity and Professor of Diet and Population Health at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences at Oxford University. Last year she called for people to give up orange juice, saying she had stopped drinking it herself. Orange juice contains as much sugar as many fizzy drinks, she said, and it was time for juice to be excluded from the 5-a-day guidelines. Public Health England continues to review these guidelines.
As the official guidelines currently stand, a 150ml glass of unsweetened 100% fruit or vegetable juice counts as 1 of your 5-a-day, but no more. In other words, juice can only ever count as one portion a day, no matter how much you drink, because it doesn’t contain the fibre found in whole fruits and vegetables.
The guidelines also recommend restricting fruit juice intake to 150ml per day because of the sugar content. Crushing fruit into juice releases the sugars contained in the fruit, which can cause damage to teeth. The advice is also relevant to smoothies –both unsweetened fruit juice and smoothies are sugary, so limit these to a combined total of 150ml a day.
Can juice ever be good for you?
Not everyone is ready to consign fruit juice to the junk food bin. Dr Rosalind Miller, a nutrition scientist with the British Nutrition Foundation, argues that juice is an important source of nutrients for many people.
''One hundred per cent fruit juice makes a valuable contribution to our intake of vitamin C in the UK diet, contributing almost 20% to average daily vitamin C intake in schoolchildren, and more than 10% in adults,'’ she says. ‘'A 150ml glass of unsweetened orange juice is also a source of folate and potassium.’
The British Fruit Juice Association naturally agrees, arguing that just 8.5% of UK children and 30% of adults eat the five recommended portions of fruit or vegetables a day. Gaynor Ferrari, a spokeswoman for the Association, says ‘scaremongering’ is overshadowing the positive contribution that fruit juice makes to the nation’s health. ‘Sensible dietary advice should be encouraging everyone – especially those struggling to reach their 5-a-day – to drink a small glass of pure fruit juice each day. It is good for you, but scaring people to reduce their 5-a-day is most definitely not.’
A significant problem with fruit juice consumption these days is portion control – juice is no longer regarded as a shot of goodness, but as a drink to slake our thirst.
How to make your juice healthy...
Jeannette Jackson, nutritionist, juicing advocate and author of The Drop Zone Diet, says consumers are better off making their own juice so they can control what goes into it, and to limit their intake to a couple of glasses a week as a ‘nutritional top-up’. She suggests the following tips for making the healthiest juice:
- Blending is better than juicing as it retains the pulp and skin of the fruit and veg
- Include vegetables in the mix and only use a small handful each of just two types of fruit, such as berries and a small banana.
- Add the juice of half a lemon or a splash of apple cider vinegar. This will mask the taste of vegetables and make the juice taste sweeter without adding more fruit or sweeteners.
- Add fats, such as chopped walnuts or flaxseeds, to slow the absorption of the sugars.
How to protect your teeth...
The British Dental Association acknowledges that juice can cause dental harm, but there are ways to combat this. ‘You will definitely be damaging your children’s teeth if fruit juices are drunk outside mealtimes,’ according to Professor Damien Walmsley, the Association’s scientific advisor. ‘Always drink juice with meals and never before bedtime.’ Other tips include:
- Choose 100% fruit juices with no added sugar.
- Pick apple or berry juice over citrus, which is worse for teeth and more likely to erode enamel than other juices.
- Fruit juice softens tooth enamel, which protects teeth from decay, so wait one hour after drinking before brushing your teeth. This will give the enamel time to harden.
- Avoid flavoured water, as it also contains lots of sugar.
- Never drink juice from the bottle, or give juice to small children in bottles, as this bathes the teeth in juice and increases the chances of damage.
- Drink fruit juice heavily diluted with water.
Still have questions about the sweet stuff? Head on over to our sugar hub for all the answers. Do you love fruit juices or swerve them due to the sugar content? Let us know in the comments below...
This article was last reviewed on 18 January 2019 by nutritionist (MBANT) Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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