Fruit juice under fire: is the criticism warranted?
At a recent London event, the British Fruit Juice Association sought to dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding 100% fruit juice. Elliot Gardner looks into the health claims and speaks to a BNF nutritionist to find out more.
At the Eat Smart Show, part of the Allergy and Free From Show 2017 held at the Olympia Exhibition Centre in London, UK last week, the British Fruit Juice Association (BFJA) presented a talk at the event’s learning centre titled ‘A new in-depth study confirms the place of fruit juice in a healthy and balanced diet’. The talk hoped to dispel popular misconceptions the public have on the topic of 100% fruit juices as part of a day-to-day diet, and made reference to information from Fruit Juice Matters - a campaign by the European Fruit Juice Association (AIJN) – and from the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN).
In the last few years the health benefits of fruit juice has become a controversial subject and the media have been quick to pick up on the idea that it may not be quite as good for you as the marketing suggests. However, the Fruit Juice Matters campaign claims that much of the science behind the health benefits of 100% fruit juice has been misread, and seeks to address the confusion.
“The sugar in fruit juices contributes to obesity”
The first point raised by the BFJA speaker was the matter of sugar, and more importantly ‘free sugar’ in fruit juice. It is important to note that by law, 100% fruit juice cannot contain added sugar. The only sugar in a 100% fruit juice drink comes from the fruit itself. However this does not mean that sugar content of the drinks is not a concern.
“Crushing fruit into juice releases the sugars naturally present in the fruit which is why fruit juice is described as containing ‘free sugars’ whereas whole fruit is not. Free sugars are the type of sugars that we should be limiting in our diets as these have been linked to increased risk of tooth decay and weight gain. Table sugar, syrups, honeys and nectars also count as free sugars,” says Stacey Lockyer, nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF).
While the NHS also say that we eat too much of free sugars, which can lead to obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, for fruit juices at least the SACN in their Carbohydrates and Health Report 2015 claimed that they assessed several studies surrounding unsweetened fruit juice consumption and did not find any association with significant gain in body fatness or fat distribution.
The AIJN hold the stance that “there is no direct link between 100% fruit juice and obesity. In fact, studies suggest that fruit juice consumers are leaner, eat more fruit and vegetables than non-consumers and are more likely to achieve the fruit and vegetable consumption guidelines of many European countries.”
“It’s difficult to drink a portion of juice every day”
While the sugar issue is important, it may only be a relevant factor because of portion size and potential overconsumption. According to the BFJA 83% of people do not know how much fruit juice constitutes one ‘portion’ as defined in official health guidelines such as the ‘five-a-day’ scheme. At the Olympia event the BFJA said that this confusion lead to apathy, with people believing that they could not fit enough fruit juice into their diet, meaning that the UK is actually under-consuming fruit juice, rather than drinking too much.
The real issue though, is that those who do regularly consume fruit juices are drinking too much. The European recommended portion is 150ml of juice (of any fruit or vegetable), and consuming more than that level, even from a variety of different fruits, still only constitutes one ‘five-a-day’ portion. “Fruit (and vegetable) juices are nutritious, providing us with vitamins and minerals… but importantly, portions should be limited to 150ml per day in total due to the sugars content. It’s a good idea to dilute fruit juice with water to make it go further and keep juices and smoothies to mealtimes rather than having them between meals to help minimise damage to your teeth,” says Lockyer.
The problem is especially highlighted in grocery stores. For example, Tropicana sells its orange juice bottles in a standard size of 250ml, with Minute Maid bottles coming in a 450ml size. These bottles are often seen as a ‘one-sitting’ drink, with most individuals opting to drink them all in one go, rather than stopping after 150ml, meaning even after one bottle the consumer is far exceeding their recommended daily limit.
“A high sugar drink like fruit juice cannot be healthy”
While the free sugar content is high, nutritional bodies do confirm that 100% fruit juice does serve a dietary purpose.
According to the BFJA 1 in 4 women in the UK suffer from low levels of iron in their systems, and the organisation claims that breakfast drinks such as orange juice help facilitate the absorption or iron from foods such as cereals and toast. Lockyer clarifies that it is in fact the vitamin C that helps with the process: “Vitamin C helps our bodies to absorb non-haem iron (the type of iron present in plant foods). The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have approved the use of a health claim for this benefit for foods which are at least a source of vitamin C… Having fruit, vegetables and/or a small (no more than 150 ml) glass of fruit juice or smoothies with your meal can help you to absorb iron.”
Another nutritional point addressed at the event was that there is no basis to avoid 100% fruit juices labelled as ‘from concentrate’. Many believe that not from concentrate drinks are healthier, but the BFJA assured the audience at length that the only difference between the two is that for concentrate the water in the juice has been removed at the point of shipping to make it easier to transport, being added in again at the destination country. So long as the consumer is careful to ensure that nothing has been added to the juice, there should be no nutritional difference.