Over the years, food and beverage companies have aggressively marketed foods in the name of public health. Many of them, of course, certainly taste good; breakfast cereal is one example. But the adage that having breakfast is a must is backed up more by marketing from the likes of Kellogg and General Mills than peer-reviewed science.
Take this marketing example from Tropicana.com: "Taste and nutrition are brought together in every single bottle of Tropicana juice. With fruits, vegetables and passion in every glass, it has everything you need to brighten your day!"
But with a national obesity rate that refuses to budge, it is becoming clear that the extra calories from juice far outweigh the vitamins and other health benefits it provides to consumers.
Three professors of medicine addressed this discrepancy in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post. They made it clear that juice is a treat, and there is no problem serving it occasionally. The problem is the stubborn belief that juice -- whether it comes from oranges, apples or kale -- is just as healthy as fresh fruits and vegetables.
Citing the amount of calories in a glass of orange juice compared to a full piece of fruit, Heather Ferris, Elvira Isganaitis and Florence Brown made the case that our perception of juice needs a “radical makeover.”
The Post op-ed struck a personal chord, as a family history of diabetes chases me rapidly like that fast-approaching car in the rearview mirror. A decade ago, my glucose levels were high, so off I went to see a nutritionist. She urged me to keep a food diary. A while later, I showed up at her office to show what I had consumed over the previous weeks. Among the several no-nos, she was not happy with my regular consumption of carrot juice from Trader Joe’s.
“But it’s carrots; it’s vitamin A!” I protested, looking at her like she was an idiot. She stared back, justifiably, as if I were the bigger idiot. I made some adjustments, but recently my doctor sat me down after some tests and summed up the news: I was borderline diabetic. We decided I would start a near-ketogenic diet, limit my net carbohydrate intake to 50 to 100 grams daily (minus fiber), and spurn sugar in all forms.
So I began to plan menus the way more athletes do these days, but it's counter-intuitive to how U.S. government guidelines advise us to eat. Three months later, a diet that includes almost 60 percent calories from fat helped me lose 18 pounds (over 8 kilos). In the meantime, I have said good-bye to sugars, grains, bread, pasta, alcohol and definitely juice -- pomegranate, acai or otherwise. (This is not meant to be health advice: Talk to a doctor or nutritionist before making a drastic change to your diet.)
As Ferris, Isganaitis and Brown pointed out, the popularity of juice bars and juice machines -- everywhere from coffee shops to Whole Foods -- has made juice trendy (and more expensive), but at a growing risk to public health.
A bunch of kale may top off at 100 calories and come with copious amounts of vitamins, fiber and minerals. But many of us blanch at the thought of kale, so we think we’re doing our body a favor by imbibing it in a smoothie with oranges, bananas and lord knows what kind of processed protein powder. That bunch of kale will now cost you at least 600 calories – without most of the fiber, antioxidants, phytonutrients and even basic nutrients that were stripped out while that kale was pulverized. The upshot is: If kale just does not work for you, stick to a green with a milder taste instead of drinking with a side of sugar.
The truth is that the history of juice, like breakfast cereal, is one based in marketing and even “innovation” -- not from the need to create a healthful food product. Almost a century ago, the owners of Florida orange groves needed to figure out what to do with all that surplus fruit, and the canned juice industry was born -- and it thrived for decades.
Eventually the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) incorporated juice into its nutritional guidelines; those suggestions were recently adjusted, but a glass of juice is still considered the same thing as a piece of whole fruit, even though any responsible doctor or nutritionist would tell you otherwise. Meanwhile, federal assistance programs such as WIC (Women, Children and Infants Supplemental Food Program) are giving food companies a free pass. WIC guidelines, for example, permit recipients to purchase up to two gallons of juice a month – money that could be better spent on whole fruits and vegetables.
So what’s the solution? These medical professionals suggest ditching the juice bars -- and definitely the juice boxes. Instead, choose water, milk or a milk alternative, especially for children. As is the case with our favorite forms of poison -- whether they be ice cream, booze, chocolate or a sugary latte -- juice should be consumed in limited portions, not as something regularly served with a meal. And adults should consume no more than four to six fluid ounces a day.
The Institutes of Medicine recently issued recommendations to the WIC program, which include a far smaller monthly juice allowance. The big food companies will not go for this policy shift, but considering the link between fruit juice consumption and increased obesity risks, the time has come for policymakers to do the right thing for public health.
Image credit: Derrick Brutel/Flickr
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.