The health-impact of juice is a contentious issue. Yes, it’s full of vitamins and minerals. But it’s also full of sugar. How much sugar? The below graph compares the calories and sugar content in a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Tropicana Orange Juice. I’ve hidden the names. Which one is the “healthy” orange juice?
Give up? 12 ounces of Tropicana orange juice actually has more calories than an equal amount of Pepsi or Coca-Cola.
So juice has a ton of calories, almost all of it from sugar [UPDATE: I mean here that it has a lot of calories per unit volume, similar to Coke or Pepsi]. And that sugar has a negative metabolic impact on your body whether it comes from a can of Coke or a glass or Pure Premium.
Even worse, liquid calories are not very filling, which means that they can easily increase your overall caloric intake. Eat an apple or orange and you’ll be full for a while, drink a volume of juice that provides a similar amount of calories and you’ll be far less full. This is why it’s very easy to accidentally over-consume your fruit when you take it in liquid form, as I’ve pointed out in the past.
Despite all this, when I discuss the healthiness of juice people often counter with some variation on the following statement:
“Yes, but juice is natural.“
And this has always bothered me. Because at that point the discussion is essentially over. You can tell people that your body can’t tell whether sugar is coming from a natural source, but they won’t believe you. In fact, it took a long time before I believed it – in undergrad I happily gulped down 1 litre (~34 fluid ounces) of juice every weekday. Whenever my roomates made fun of me for consuming so many liquid calories I used the same “natural” excuse as everyone else.
However, I recently came to an important realization:
Juice is not natural.
How is this possible? “Natural” is an extremely relative term, but I assume that most people take it to mean “unrefined”. And yet, juice is surprisingly refined. For example, check out this interview with researcher and author Alissa Hamilton (emphasis mine):
Q: What would consumers be surprised to discover about orange juice?
A: The leading producers of “not from concentrate” (a.k.a. pasteurized) orange juice keep their juice in million-gallon aseptic storage tanks to ensure a year-round supply. Juice stored this way has to be stripped of oxygen, a process known as de-aeration, so it doesn’t oxidize in the tanks. When the juice is stripped of oxygen, it is also stripped of flavour-providing chemicals … If you were to try the juice coming out of the tanks, it would taste like sugar water.
Juice companies therefore hire flavour and fragrance companies, the same ones that make popular perfumes and colognes, to fabricate flavour packs to add back to their product to make it taste like orange juice.
Q: What are flavour packs?
A: Flavour packs are derived from the orange essence and oils that are lost from orange juice during processing. Flavour houses break down these essence and oils into their constituent chemicals and then reassemble the chemicals into formulations that resemble nothing found in nature. Most of the juice sold in North America contains flavour packs that have especially high concentrations of ethyl butyrate, a chemical found in orange essence that the industry has discovered Americans like and associate with the flavour of a freshly squeezed orange.
Now I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound terribly natural to me. And let’s not forget that one of the healthiest things about fruit – fibre – is also removed through the refining process.
Even a freshly made fruit smoothie is still pretty refined when compared to the fruit itself. It takes a fair amount of energy and chopping (not to mention a fancy modern blender) to get a pineapple to the point that you can consume it through a straw. You can think of a fruit smoothie as essentially a piece of blueberry pie in a glass – at least in the pie the blueberries aren’t liquefied (seriously – an original size strawberry raspberry banana smoothie at Jamba Juice has more calories and more sugar than a piece of homemade blueberry pie). Smoothies may be a lot less refined than Twinkies, but they’re not all that far from Nutella or peanut butter.
None of this is to say that I never drink juice – I still drink a (small) glass with breakfast some mornings. And full disclosure: my wife made a delicious fruit smoothie for breakfast this morning (dessert with breakfast!). But I’m now willing to recognize that it has a lot of sugar and calories, and consume it accordingly (not unlike two of my other favourites – beer and chocolate milk). And whenever possible I eat (rather than drink) my fruits and veggies.
I have a feeling this may be a contentious issue. I look forward to the comments!
This article was originally posted in March of 2012.