Saturday, June 10, 2017

The skinny on the juice vs. coke debate

I've been reading an increasing number of articles recently about juice being just as bad for us as Coca-Cola. The articles always seem to be written with such sanctimonious relish and shadenfreude, that it has made me doubly intent on ferreting out the truth behind the claims.
The conventional wisdom is that, at its simplest, soda pops = artificial + bad, while juice = natural + good. And there's certainly some truth to that. Fruit juices - and here I am talking about 100% unsweetened fruit juice, not the sweetened drinks that masquerade as juice - contain natural sugars in the form of fructose. Pop on the other hand is mainly sweetened these days with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is a combination of glucose and fructose (HFCS is corn syrup treated to convert some of its natural glucose into fructose). Both are sugars, and both are to a certain degree "unhealthy", and when taken to excess can lead to medical conditions like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, etc. We all eat and drink too much sugar in its various forms, that much is undeniable.
However, a growing body of evidence seems to suggest that fructose may be even unhealthier than glucose and other sugars, partly because fructose is processed in the liver and is typically converted straight to fat rather than used as body fuel. This idea is by no means uncontested, though, and many nutritionists believe that all sugars should be treated equally (and reduced). What is generally agreed on is that, when fructose is ingested in the form of whole fruits, the fibre that comes with it slows down and reduces the absorption of sugars by the body. The fibre in whole fruits also make it less likely that we will overindulge, whereas it is all too easy to drink glass after glass of juice. So, yes, whole fruit is significantly better than juice - fair enough, that makes intuitive sense to me.
As for how much fructose different drinks contain, a 2014 study published in Nutrition journal and reported by NPR shows the following:
  • Mountain Dew: 72.3 g/L
  • Mugs Root Beer: 66.9 g/L
  • Minute Maid 100% Apple Juice: 65.8 g/L
  • Pepsi: 65.7 g/L
  • Coca-Cola: 62.5 g/L
  • Dr. Pepper: 61.4 g/L
  • Arizona Ice Tea: 59.3 g/L
  • Ocean Spray 100% Cranberry Juice: 55.4 g/L
  • Kool-Aid Jammers: 49.0 /L
  • 7-Up: 45.8 g/L
  • Hawaiian Punch: 41.0 g/L
  • Sunny D: 32.8 g/L
  • Tropicana 100% Orange Juice: 28.3 g/L
  • Gatorade Lemon Lime: 23.2 g/L
So, what can we glean from this? One, not all juices are created equal, and we should avoid Minute Maid Apple Juice like the plague (grape juice is typically even higher in sugar). And two, gsensible juices like Tropicana Orange Juice, which is what I tend to buy, are in fact at least half as unhealthy (twice as healthy?) as colas and other pops. Which is kind of what I always thought in the first place... And I will take the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in fruit juice over the empty calories of pop any day.
Except, of course, that it's not even that simple (of course it isn't).
I found an analysis of the different sugars in 100% orange juice - something that the other reports I have read don't seem to have touched on - which reveals that only about 27% of the sugars in juice is actually the frowned-on fructose, while 25% is glucose and 42% sucrose (sucrose is basically what we think of as table sugar, a naturally occurring combination of fructose and glucose, although without the processing, bleaching and crystallization).
  • Coca-Cola: 65% fructose and 35% glucose
  • Pepsi: 63% fructose and 37% glucose
  • Sprite: 61% fructose and 39% glucose
  • Hawaiian Fruit Punch: 61% fructose and 39% glucose
  • Arizona Iced Tea: 58% fructose and 42% glucose
  • Mountain Dew: 53% fructose and 47% glucose
  • Dr. Pepper: 52% fructose and 48% glucose
  • Snapple Kiwi Strawberry: 44% fructose, 56% glucose and 13% sucrose
So, it turns out that pops and sweetened beverages, because of the HFCS almost exclusively used in their manufacture, are actually much higher in fructose than natural orange juice anyway, which kind of negates much of the point being made in all these recent articles about how the fructose in natural juice is worse for us than pop.
All in all, it sounds to me like another case of journalistic largesse gone wrong, a case of not letting evidential science get in the way of a good story. I should have known not to trust any issue the Daily Mail takes up in earnest...
And the solution: as always, apply common sense and moderation. Drink lots of water, water down your juice, and don't drink the Cool-Aid.

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