For decades fruit juice has been seen as a healthy option. Then this week a primary school banned it after claims that it’s as bad for you as Coca-Cola. But how big a health risk does it pose?
Fruit juice isn’t the same as intact fruit and it has as much sugar as many classical sugar drinks,’ says medical researcher Susan Jebb. Photograph: Deborah Pendell/Getty Images/Flickr Open
This week, it looked as if fruit juice might finally lose its claim to healthiness and be put into the same category as fizzy drinks. It emerged that a headteacher, Elizabeth Chaplin, who runs Valence primary school in Dagenham, wrote to parents about a new rule to confiscate juice cartons from children’s lunch boxes. Instead, pupils would only be allowed to drink water.
Days earlier, Susan Jebb, a government advisor and head of the diet and obesity research group at the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research unit at Cambridge University, told the Sunday Times that the government’s official advice that a glass counts towards your recommended minimum five-a-day servings of fruit and vegetables should be changed.
“Fruit juice isn’t the same as intact fruit and it has as much sugar as many classical sugar drinks,” said Jebb, who has stopped drinking juice. “It is also absorbed very fast, so by the time it gets to your stomach your body doesn’t know whether it’s Coca-Cola or orange juice, frankly. I have to say it is a relatively easy thing to give up. Swap it and have a piece of real fruit. If you are going to drink it, you should dilute it.”
This comes on top of a year or so of stories about the high sugar content of fruit juice. The same US scientists who warned about the use of high-fructose corn syrup in fizzy drinks have now turned their attention to juice. “Fruit juice and smoothies are the new danger,” Barry Popkin, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, told the Guardian in September. Work by Dr Robert Lustig – whose book Fat Chance: the Bitter Truth about Sugar received much attention last year – and studies such as one published in the British Medical Journal in the summer, which found fruit juice is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, are starting to make people realise that fruit juice may not be as wholesome as they once believed.
So why is fruit juice still being pushed as a healthy option? “You can’t trust government health advice,” says Joanna Blythman, author of What to Eat. “They have the same advice that they’ve been recycling for 50 years and rarely change it. It’s embarrassing to admit they’ve made a mistake.”
Does she drink juice? “I don’t, really – not in any great quantity,” she says. At one point, she says, in the late 1980s and early 90s, she was “a very enthusiastic orange juicer. I remember coming back from the States, where everyone juices like mad, and I got a juicer. Then over the last couple of years there has been more and more evidence that sweet juices are basically just fructose, and have a similar effect on the body to fizzy and soft drinks in terms of sugar.”
The juice industry has long enjoyed a healthy image. Anything to do with fruit, says Blythman, “has always been used to put a halo of health around dubious products that don’t merit it. That’s business as usual for the food industry.”
For all their reliance on phrases such as “100% pure” and “pure squeezed”, many of the big commercial orange juice manufacturers make a processed product, as detailed by Alissa Hamilton in her 2009 book Squeezed: What You Don’t Know about Orange Juice.
In the early 20th century, juice was mainly sold in cans. During the second world war, the US government commissioned scientists to develop a product that would supply vitamin C to soldiers overseas. “That’s when research into developing a frozen concentrate that people would actually like started,” says Hamilton. Until then, it had been fairly tasteless – the concentrating process removed the water, but also the natural chemicals that gave orange juice its taste. “They started adding fresh juice to the concentrate and that made it taste good. The discovery was too late for the war, but after the war that’s when orange juice started to become really popular.”
However, as the market grew, it was becoming too expensive to use fresh juice to add flavour back to concentrate. “They developed the technology around the 1960s to capture and break down the essences and oils that were lost when the juice was concentrated, and came up with these things called flavour packs.”
Producers of pasteurised orange juice began storing their juice in vast tanks. In order to keep it “fresh”, the product had to be stripped of oxygen. Once this had been done, the juice could be stored for up to a year. The only problem was that this process also removed much of the taste. “You need flavour packs to make it taste like anything we know as orange juice,” says Hamilton.
So, does she still drink juice? “I actually never did,” she says. “I try to eat the whole thing. If I have an orange, I don’t even stop at the fruit – I eat the pith, the peel. Juicing anything would not be my choice.”
For most of us it is, though, and it is not obvious that any of the sugar scare stories are affecting the fruit juice market yet. In its latest report, the research company Mintel found that 83% of people drink fruit juice, a juice drink or smoothie at least once a week. It also estimates that the market will grow by 13% by 2018. It found 34% of consumers were concerned about the amount of sugar, but “a striking 76%” believed juice and smoothies to be healthy.
As part of its end-of-year “top products” survey, the retail trade journal the Grocer found a mixed picture for juice brands. The leading brand, Tropicana, experienced a downturn in sales of 5.4% throughout 2013, though sales of Innocent smoothies, owned by Coca-Cola, were up more than 7%. However, Innocent was one of the brands highlighted last yearas containing high levels of sugar: a 250ml serving of its pomegranate, blueberry and acai smoothie contains 34g of sugar, around the same as a 330ml can of Coke.
“I think the current coverage about fruit juice and sugar will have an influence on consumers,” says Heidi Lanschützer, food and drink research analyst at Mintel. “The question is whether it’s a short- or long-term impact.” She says this will depend on how ongoing the coverage is, and whether more schools ban juice, though the biggest impact will be if the government takes Susan Jebb’s advice and removes it from the five-a-day list. This, she says,”is one of the market’s biggest selling points – if the market is not allowed to use that any more, that will definitely have an impact.”
Not everybody is racing to demonise juice just yet. “It’s about portion size. 150ml of fruit juice is perfectly acceptable as one of your five-a-day,” says Azmina Govindji, dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. “But we would suggest you have it with a meal so it doesn’t make your blood sugar go up too quickly. I think the difficulty comes when people think of fruit juice as being a really healthy drink and having half a pint, or having it throughout the day, or where children are being brought up on large amounts.
“The key message is that small amounts – a 150ml glass is quite small – as part of a healthy varied diet is fine. You get fluid and vitamin C but you need to be aware that it does contain sugar. If you can, always choose fresh fruit and veg [over juice]. You’re going to get fibre, more nutrients and you’re likely to have fewer calories.”
Does she think the advice on juice being part of the five-a-day will change? “I think what needs to change is advice on portion size.”
Blythman, meanwhile, understands that the mixed messages about juice are perplexing for consumers. “People are thoroughly confused,” she says. “But I think [growing awareness of sugar levels] will have an effect. The simplest way to put it is: eat whole fruit, don’t drink juice.”