Is Fruit Juice Actually Healthy?

Many people believe fruit juice is on equal nutritional footing with whole fruit. But what's the real story?

Is fruit juice healthy?

If you poll your average parent, feedback is varied. A 2012 study found that one-third of parents believed fruit juice was at least as healthy as fresh fruit, for example.

Labels like "100% fruit juice" only make the issue hazier. If it's made completely from fruit, it's gotta be healthy—right?

While the consumption of soda has dropped precipitously in recent years among Americans, the same has not been true of juice. More than half of children between ages 2 and 5 drink juice regularly, and children who do consume juice average about 10 ounces per day. Meanwhile, American adults guzzle about 6.6 gallons of juice per year.

So just how healthy is fruit juice? Let's dive into the research to help you better know the facts behind this common beverage.

Sugar is bad.

Eating too much of it has been linked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, tooth decay, heart disease, cancer, depression, and a bevy of other unfavorable health outcomes. A 2013 report from Credit Suisse estimated that Americans collectively spend $1 trillion annually to address health issues that are "closely tied to the excess consumption of sugar."

However, the sugar present in whole fruit isn't nearly as bad as the sugar that's added to foods by manufacturers. The latter is what's known as "added sugar," and the average American eats 22 teaspoons of it each day (nearly triple the recommended limit). While a medium-size banana contains 14 grams of sugar and a serving of Oreos (three cookies) also contains 14 grams of sugar, the banana isn't nearly as deleterious to your health.

Why? One reason the naturally occurring sugar in fruit is less of a concern is because of what's bundled along with it—namely, soluble fiber. While the natural vitamins and antioxidants present in fruit are also beneficial, the high amounts of fiber is excellent at slowing down the body's absorption of sugar. The sugar in fruit is stored in cells where fiber also resides, which is a unique trait. That built-in fiber means it takes more time for the digestive tract to break down the sugar.

"Fiber slows down digestion, resulting in the sugar being absorbed more slowly," says Brian St. Pierre, RD and nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition. This delayed digestion has numerous benefits. It gives the liver more time to metabolize the sugar, which keeps blood sugar relatively stable. This helps to avoid the rapid rise—and sudden crash—associated with a sugar high.

"You don't get that quick rise and fall of blood sugar levels," St. Pierre says. Avoiding those surges in blood sugar reduces the amount of insulin your body must produce, thereby putting you at less risk of insulin resistance, obesity and Type 2 diabetes. The prolonged digestion period also means fruit keeps you feeling full longer than highly processed foods, which are digested quickly and "designed to overwhelm your normal satiation signals, so they can and often do lead to overeating," St. Pierre says.

It takes several pieces of whole fruit to make a significant amount of juice, making it a concentrated source of sugar. That's why a 10-ounce bottle of Minute Maid Fruit Punch, which is a 100% fruit juice blend of apple, pear, grape and pineapple juice, contains 32 grams of sugar. The company's apple juice, which is also 100% juice, contains the same amount. On a per ounce basis, these juices contain just as much sugar and calories as Coca-Cola.

But since these products are made with 100% fruit juice, they're still healthy, right? Not so much. Fruit juice misses the key ingredient that helps counteract the sugar in whole fruit—naturally occurring fiber. Unless the juice contains pulp (and most do not), almost all of the natural fiber in whole fruit is removed or destroyed during the juice production process. So fruit juice packs a ton of sugar in a small package, and it also contains no fiber to counteract it.

Additionally, many of the other useful nutrients found in whole fruit are destroyed or altered during processing. Sure, many varieties contain significant amounts of vitamin C, potassium and/or vitamin A, but it's generally not enough to make up for the extreme amount of sugar. And for the many types of juice that do not qualify as 100% fruit juice (which after often referred to as "fruit drinks" or "fruit cocktails"), the nutritional profile is even worse.

A recent New York Times opinion article penned by three professors of pediatrics and entitled "Seriously, Juice is Not Healthy" sums up many of the major issues:

Drinking fruit juice is not the same as eating whole fruit. While eating certain fruits like apples and grapes is associated with a reduced risk of diabetes, drinking fruit juice is associated with the opposite. Juices contain more concentrated sugar and calories. They also have less fiber, which makes you feel full. Because juice can be consumed quickly, it is more likely than whole fruit to contribute to excess carbohydrate intake. For example, research has found that adults who drank apple juice before a meal felt hungrier and ate more calories than those who started with an apple instead. Children who drink juice instead of eating fruit may similarly feel less full and may be more likely to snack throughout the day.

A 2017 statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics hits on many of the same points, stating that "fruit juice offers no nutritional benefits for infants younger than 1 year" and "has no essential role in healthy, balanced diets of children." Excessive juice consumption has also been associated with tooth decay, short stature and malnutrition in children.

Both children and adults are much better off eating whole fruit and drinking water than they are regularly consuming fruit juice.

Is a little bit of juice OK? Sure. But the high amount of sugar (and low amount of relative volume) can make sticking to the recommended serving size difficult, so is it really worth the risk? If you do go for juice, make sure you're choosing 100% fruit juice. Diluting the juice with some water can also be an easy way to increase volume and combat overconsumption.

Photo Credit: Proformabooks/iStock, UlaBezryk/iStock

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Topics: NUTRITION | FRUIT | FRUITS AND VEGETABLES | EATING HEALTHY | SUGAR