Ranging mostly between 40 and 100 calories per serving and offering a low to moderate calorie count – and yet they’re still packed with fiber and rich in vitamins, minerals and other potentially beneficial compounds such as carotenoids and flavonoids.
But that’s a trick question, because America’s consumption of fruit juice, which has skyrocketed in recent years, due in large part to our mounting understanding of fruit as a rich nutrient source, is turning nature’s bounty into nature’s nightmare.
“You mean ‘sugar water’?” my son’s pediatrician surprised me by saying, 20 years ago, when asked about juice in baby bottles, something now known to cause “juice bottle syndrome,” the result of juice bathing babies’ teeth and leading to bacteria growth, plaque and eventual decay.
“Fruit juices can fill kids up so that they’re not hungry at the dinner table and are too full to eat more nutritious foods,” according to Carlos Lifschitz, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Tex.
Fruit-juice consumption today is at an all-time high, and according to the Berkeley Wellness Letter, some scientists have dubbed fruit “almost as ‘evil’ as sugar and white bread, when it comes to weight control and overall health.”
But then there’s the Centers for Disease Control’s 2010 findings that, although only one-third of American adults eat fruit two or more times a day, people with healthy weights are much more likely to do so than obese people. And a 2009 fructose study from Tufts, in which researchers concluded that in order to decrease the high incidence of obesity, diabetes, lipid problems and insulin resistance, people should eat more whole fruits and vegetables and less high fructose and table sugar.
Left alone, fruit is the perfect snack – portable and sweet, it doesn’t need cooking. It’s less caloric than sugary snacks; and, thanks to its fiber (and water content), filling.
But most fruit juices have a higher sugar content than soft drinks; grape juice, for example, contains 50 percent more sugar than Coca Cola. Fruit smoothies take that several steps farther, with some regular-sized fast-food smoothies found to contain upwards of 75 grams of sugar.
When buying fruit juice, don’t be fooled by claims like “no sugar added” – fruit juice has plenty of naturally occurring sugars. Just one cup of fruit juice contains nearly as much fructose as a can of soda, and studies show that kids who drink a lot of fruit juice are just as likely to be overweight as are kids who consume high amounts of soda.
Lacking the originating fruit’s fiber (not to mention nutrients and digestion-enhancing enzymes), which helps slow the absorption of fructose, fruit juice is consumed faster than fruit. So while even the sweetest fruit is unlikely to have enough fructose to trigger a hypoglycemic response (a “sugar high”), rapidly consumed fruit juice is quite another matter.
Whole fruits come packed with fiber as well as vitamins, minerals and such other potentially beneficial compounds as carotenoids and flavonoids – and they’re filling.
Fruit juice, by comparison, carries an excess of empty calories (six ounces of orange juice packs 80 calories, and relative to the whole fruit, minimal nutrition), enough so that the daily recommended fruit juice consumption for adults is now 8-12 ounces; and for children ages 6 months to 6 years, half that amount (children under 6 months should not drink fruit juice).
As the Wellness Letter reports, “Fructose, at least in the large quantities many Americans are now eating and drinking, can have adverse effects on blood cholesterol and triglycerides, worsen blood sugar control, promote abdominal weight gain and pose other health risks.”
Even the American Association of Pediatrics is revisiting its recommendation that half of children’s Food Pyramid Guide-recommended fruit servings come from 100 percent fruit juice.
Fruits are complicated foods, full of fiber, which is what helps to slow the body’s absorption of fructose. While some fruits (apples, pears, mangoes) have higher loads of fructose than others, whole fruits are relatively moderate, on the glycemic index.
Several servings of fruit juice, with more sugar than whole fruit, per six ounce serving, are easily consumed in just a few gulps. Concentrated fruit juices are the least nutritious, and studies show that daily consumption of as little as 2 cups (16 ounces) of orange and apple juice concentrates can cause malnutrition in young children (consuming four times that amount has been shown, in extreme cases, to stunt children’s growth).
Over-consumption of any fruit juice, just like over-consumption of sugar, leads to insulin resistance and a heightened risk of chronic disease, so that fruit juice is now implicated in a range of escalating health problems from obesity to cancer to type II diabetes.
Parents of children who are picky eaters, especially children with cavities, diarrhea, chronic abdominal pain or weight problems, should monitor their children’s fruit juice consumption. Too much fruit juice can contribute to a poorly balanced diet, delivering a deceptive sense of fullness, from its water, sugars and carbohydrates, that decreases appetite, and functions as a disincentive to the consumption of complex carbohydrates, fat and protein.
For children under age 6, nutritionists recommend diluting all types of fruit juice with equal amounts of water, and limiting their daily consumption of all types of juices to no more than 6 ounces.
Once in the gut, fruit juice can continue to cause problems. For children unable to efficiently absorb large amounts of sugar, fruit-juice consumption can cause bloating, gas and diarrhea. Too much sugar can also stimulate the production of insulin, the hormone that increases the production of fat in the body, as well as lower levels of leptin, a hormone that stimulates fat-burning potential.
Some Facts About
Melissa Einfrank, RD, a clinical dietician with the University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz., recommends following this checklist when choosing fruit juices for children:
• Look for juices that are fortified with vitamin C.
• Calcium-fortified juices are good options, but not as good a source of calcium as milk or other dairy products, which contain vitamin D, aiding the absorption of calcium.
• When possible, offer your children fresh fruit instead of juice.
Avoid fruit juice with preservatives like sulfites, which are linked to allergic reactions, headache, nausea, and even impaired brain development, according to reports received by the Food and Drug administration, and with artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners.
Orange and grapefruit juices contain more natural vitamin C than other fruit juices, although the vitamin C content may deteriorate upon exposure to air, so be sure to refrigerate and tightly seal opened containers.
Freshly squeezed juice contains more vitamin C than “made from concentrate” canned or frozen juices.
Juices with a high fructose-to-glucose ratio, and juices that contain sorbitol, a naturally occurring (in stone fruits and berries) sugar alcohol that the body metabolizes slowly, can aggravate intestinal problems.
Fruit Juice Nutrition
Orange – Highest amount of vitamin C and potassium and a good source of folate and thiamin. It also contains cancer-fighting phytochemicals.
Grapefruit – Second highest amount of vitamin C.
Apricot Nectar – High in vitamin A and contains a small amount of iron and zinc.
Prune – Highest amounts of iron, zinc, fiber and niacin.
White Grape – High in vitamin C, and promotes intestinal healing.
Apple – Extra-sugary, with no extra nutritional advantages, but dilutes well.