Is Fruit Juice Just As Bad As Soda?

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SugarInJuice_slide01Illustrated By Sydney Hass.
Consider what you know about sugary drinks: High fructose corn syrup is basically a chemical weapon in a soda can, but fresh-pressed juice is the sensible alternative, right?

Not exactly. A recent article in The Lancet's diabetes and endocrinology journal calls for something frequently lacking in the discussion about sugary drinks: common sense.

While sugary beverages are generally understood to be bad for us, "consumption of fruit is regarded as virtuous," write Jason M.R. Gill and Naveed Sattar, researchers at the University of Glasgow's Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences. That's a flawed perception, though. They point out that fruit juice on the whole has a similar energy density and sugar content to many "bad" beverages. A 250-milliliter serving of plain, unsweetened apple juice, for example, typically contains 110 calories and 26 grams of sugar. The same amount of cola has 105 calories and 26.5 grams of sugar.

The researchers fully admit that fruit juices typically contain more vitamins and nutrients than soda and similar beverages, but those nutrients "might not be sufficient to offset the adverse metabolic consequences of excessive fruit juice consumption." That is, if you switched your three-Diet-Coke-a-day habit for routine stops at the juice bar, you're not necessarily in a much different place nutritionally.
SugarInJuice_slide02Illustrated By Sydney Hass.
The problem is that people tend to believe that fruit juice is generally healthier than sodas and similar beverages. The researchers polled about 2,000 people in the U.K. and asked them to estimate the amount of sugar in various drinks based on pictures presented to them. On average, those people underestimated the sugar content of juices and smoothies by 48%. They overestimated the sugar in sodas by a little over 10%.

But, wait — isn't the sugar in fruit juice, a.k.a fructose, better for you than high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)?

That's a bit of a misconception, actually. A recent review of the research on fructose-containing sugars and their effects on the body found that obesity and its related ailments can't necessarily be tied to specific sugars. The review looks at a 2004 study that associated HFCS with the obesity epidemic, though it didn't establish cause and effect. That study "was widely misinterpreted and sparked a series of research trials and debate within the scientific community," and since then "a broad consensus has emerged that there is nothing unique about HFCS compared with sucrose or other nutritive sweeteners when it comes to a potential association with obesity." The review goes as far as to say that looking at sugar alone in the obesity epidemic represents an "understandable but misguided desire to look for a simple solution to what is clearly a very complex problem."

While fructose-containing sugars — HFCS, fructose itself, and sucrose, or table sugar — are metabolized by the body in slightly different ways and may play a role in obesity, it seems that it has more to do with their similar nutrient densities rather than their individual chemical makeups. The Lancet authors agree that obesity brought on by sugar-sweetened beverages "seems to be simply a consequence of the excess calories provided by their consumption, rather than of any specific adverse effects of fructose-containing sugars that they contain."
SugarInJuice_slide03Illustrated By Sydney Hass.
One reason we think that fruit juice is healthier is soda is cultural; we tend to believe that natural is good and processed must be bad, and inflammatory media reports labeling refined sugar "toxic" don't exactly help. Fruit juice also does tend to contain vitamins and minerals, and in the case of smoothies, more soluble and insoluble fiber. While they might make fruit juice objectively more nutritious, none of those things negates the presence of sugar.

That's not to say you need to stop eating bananas and switch to an all-mineral-water regimen. Eat bananas! They're fantastic. The important thing is to be aware of what you eat and how much of it you eat, rather than relying on assumptions — and make sure you're offsetting your nutrient intake with exercise, too.

It's easy enough to find out which fruits contain the most sugar per serving, but here's a quick cheat sheet, all based on one-cup servings:

-Instead of blueberries (84 kcal/15g sugar), try raspberries (64 kcal/5g sugar) and blackberries (62 kcal/7g sugar), or cranberries (51 kcal/4g sugar).

-Instead of apples (65 kcal/13g sugar), try watermelon (46 kcal/10g sugar) or casaba melon (48 kcal/10g sugar).

-Instead of oranges (85 kcal/17g sugar), pineapple (82 kcal/16g sugar), or bananas (200 kcal/28g sugar), try papayas (55 kcal/8g sugar) or Asian pears (51 kcal/8g sugar).