Juice is not natural (!!!)

orange juice

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?

Calories and Sugar Content in 12 ounces of Tropicana, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola

Give up?  12 ounces of Tropicana orange juice actually has more calories than an equal amount of Pepsi or Coca-Cola.

Calories & Sugar in 12 ounces of Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Tropicana

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.

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22 Responses to Juice is not natural (!!!)

  1. Jordan says:

    Neat Read.

    However, I think the article was harsh on Smoothies. If I put strawberry, pineapple, spinach, and ice in a blender, that’s healthy! If I buy a “smoothie” at McDonald’s or Jamba Juice, that’s not healthy. The two cannot be compared on the same scale.

    • Travis says:

      Thanks for the comment, Jordan.

      Here are my thoughts on why even home-made smoothies aren’t so healthy (they’re not the worst thing in the world, but I think they are distinctly less healthy than eating those foods as solids). I’m curious to hear whether you agree or disagree.

      Let’s compare that home-made smoothie with eating all of those items individually (e.g. a pineapple, spinach and strawberry salad). For the sake of comparison, let’s assume that the dressing on the salad and any juice you add to the smoothie have the same number of calories, so the total calories of each meal is identical.

      Although the calories from the meals are identical, the smoothie meal is likely to be both less filling, and result in a greater blood sugar and insulin response (both very bad things). Also, because the blender has gone to all the trouble of grinding up the fruits and veggies for you, your body doesn’t have to waste as many calories digesting the food. So you still wind up in a worse caloric situation with the smoothie than with the salad.

      And let’s keep in mind that once you liquify something, you can consume much more of it than you could in solid form (e.g. you wouldn’t eat 5 oranges at a time, but it’s really easy to drink 5 oranges in a sitting). So in reality it’s likely that the two meals aren’t equivalent in terms of caloric intake – you’re more likely to over-consume with the smoothie.

      Finally, in my mind, one of the reasons why fruits and veggies are healthy is because they are relatively hard for your body to break down. If you use a blender to break it down for you, then you’ve now lost one of the important reasons why these things are “healthy” to begin with.

      That’s my reasoning. I’m interested to hear what you think.


      • Jordan says:

        Good points Travis.

        I was pointed toward an Abstract (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/95/3/587.short), which looked into how full someone feels when consuming foods in liquid vs solid form.

        Breaking down the food once it’s in your stomach is also something I did not consider.

        Long story short, homemade smoothies are better for you than pre-made juice, but still not as healthy as whole foods.

        • Travis Saunders, Phd, MSc, CEP says:

          Thanks for that abstract, looks like a very cool paper!

        • Travis Saunders, Phd, MSc, CEP says:

          Also, I agreement that when it comes to “healthiness” whole foods > home-made smoothies > pre-made juice.

  2. Roberto Tomás says:

    Yeah, a *big* part of the problem with mass-produced juices is that they are not really juice. Usually between 10% and 25% juice .. some might reach as high as 50% or so. *It is hard* to find actual juice, which makes the comparison here really about brands/manufacturing methods. :)

    PS> There is a real difference between blueberry pie and a smoothie. Pies are cooked, which heats the sugar, freeing it from dietary fiber, and splitting it into simpler sugars (which saves the body the energy cost of doing that itself) — these things makes cooked fruits worse for you than raw fruits in that more sugars are bio-available.

  3. Andy says:

    The truly unnatural aspect of juice is that hunter gatherers didn’t have juicers. They would have to eat ten or more supermarket oranges to get a litre of orange juice. That’s difficult enough but this was in the days before oranges were bred to become bigger, juicier and packed with sugar.

    The primordial orange was probably the size and consistency of a small pebble, dry and bitter, found twenty feet up in the tree canopy they shared with poisonous snakes, spiders and the odd panther. Getting your litre a day in that environment might have been quite taxing.

    This is why humans evolved to exploit a low sugar, high fibre diet. They had no choice. Ten thousand years of agriculture is a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. As a consequence, our digestive systems and hormonal responses are woefully maladapted to our high sugar diet which was only made possible through millenia of careful breeding and farming.

  4. Andy says:

    I should add that I love orange juice. I used to down a litre in one go on hot days in summer but have long since scaled back when I realised it was adding so much to my caloric intake. So when I talk about the evolutionary parameters that dictate what we ‘should’ eat, it is merely an observation. I just simply have it in mind in the background as a way of informing my eating habits. It’s virtually impossible to go paleo, dead boring and questionable due to the assumed environment and evolutionary pressures (like my faintly exaggerated orange scenario).

    But I think we can make a basic assumption that we have not evolved to be eating what are in effect little sacks of sugar that were nowhere to be seen on the planet until 10,000 years ago. Same goes for our preoccupation with wheat and other cereals that make up a huge proportion of our calories but which, in primordial form, were nothing more than a scrawny prairie grass or something of that ilk. Imagine the time it would take to gather the tiny seed heads to make big fluffy loaves and pastry for our blueberry pies.

  5. Nick says:

    I wish you had noted that healthfulness of a food has nothing to do with whether is ‘natural’. It’s not a bad heuristic, I give you that, but it’s not proof. E.g. whey protein is a refined, ‘unnatural’ food, but it’s still unquestionably healthy (based on all the published studies, including the meta-analyses).

  6. Hilary says:

    I find pure fruit juice disturbingly cloying and sweet unless diluted about 50%, preferably with sparkling water. That makes a pleasant if not entirely healthy drink. Smoothies are worse, and I simply won’t touch them.

    It’s clear that a person’s palate can be “trained” to like different degrees of sweetness. My not caring for juice probably relates to giving up sugar in tea and coffee about 30 years ago (juice wasn’t widely available in the UK back then). In addition to the points made in the article, I’d suggest that one of the hazards of juice and smoothie consumption is that it trains the person’s taste towards sweetness which probably has knock-on effects on the other foods they choose.

    In terms of public health messages, this would mean “Dilute juice heavily” (especially for children whose tastes are forming) rather than “Drink only small amounts of juice”.

  7. Stephanie Prince says:

    Great read Travis! I continue to read/follow your and Peter’s blog as a great way to learn about interesting research! I only eat my fruits and veggies!

  8. Louise says:

    Very glad to see you write this up. I appreciated the breakdown on smoothies here, points that I never thought about. It’s amazing and often sad how many things we think are healthy are in fact, not.

  9. Renu Bakshi says:

    Great Post!

    My simple formula is to avoid all sugary drinks, as they are mostly empty calories. I prefer a cool glass of plain water. In parties just hold a glass of water and have sips…..


  10. Andy says:

    @ Renu Bakshi

    Also, I’d recommend sparkling water. Since it has some zing, it feels more full-bodied.

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  12. Susan Burke March says:

    Appreciate the detailed explanation about “not from concentrate” juice (perceived as being more ‘natural’ and ‘healthier’). As a registered dietitian, I feel shame that I didn’t know about the de-aeration process and the adding back of chemical flavorings to what I thought was “fresher” orange juice. I ‘wiki-ed’ it, and found your explanation right on the money. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orange_juice

  13. American Beverage Association, ABA Communications says:

    Contrary to the alarmist claims made here, research shows that 100 percent juice can have health benefits for people of all ages. These beverages, which supply important nutrients, can be integrated into a balanced diet and active life — to which hydration is key.
    -American Beverage Association

    • Travis says:

      I will respectfully disagree, especially since we already have calorie free (and cheap!) options for slaying hydration, such as water…

  14. mark says:

    Looking at the graph, it appears that orange juice has the least sugar per 12-ounce serving, although the most calories. What are the calories sources in these drinks?
    How do those juices with “some pulp” or “lots of pulp” compare? I’m sure the pulp is added later, after first taking it out (which leads me to wonder if is quite the same substance that was removed).
    Then there are all those exotic fruit juices marketed as 100-percent fruit juice. They downplay the fact that most of them are apple-grape juice (from concentrate) with just a bit of cranberry or pomegranet juice added.
    We need a “Rheinheitsgebot” for juice!

    • Travis says:

      Great question. Interestingly, even OJ with pulp (e.g. Tropicana Grovestand) has 0 grams of fibre. I really thought that it would be high in fibre, but apparently not.


      Also, the vast majority of calories in both juice and pop come from sugar (multiply the grams of sugar by 4 to get the number of calories from sugar). What is left is also from carbohydrates (and possibly a smidge of protein), but not technically “sugar” (the gov’t has categories for what type of carbs are/are not sugars, and I’m not absolutely certain what the distinguishing factor is).

  15. Linda K. Lester says:

    Hi! Just clicked on over from Yoni Freedhoff’s blog.

    Interesting to read your take on homemade smoothies. I realize that digestion starts in the mouth with chewing, but I always thought (hoped, perhaps) that the digestive work we benefit so much from was mostly at the chemical level and it didn’t make that much difference that a blender did the chewing for us.

    I am very careful about portion control when I make smoothies, especially since mine tend to have protein powder added. But I hope we see some good data regarding whole fruit vs. smoothies someday.

    Good blog! I’m new here but I like your approach to the topics from what I’ve read so far.