Sugar is currently being touted as public health enemy number one and has rarely been out of the news since campaign group Action on Sugar launched its attack on the white stuff earlier this year. But while limiting trips to the biscuit tin, stopping short of ordering a pud when out for dinner, and avoiding snacking on sweets, chocolate and cake are no-brainers, one area that’s left many of us confused is fruit juice.
Until recently, most of us considered fruit juice to be a healthy drink that helps to boost our vitamin intake and counts as one of our five-a-day. But now fruit juices have come under fire for their sugar content. Indeed, figures from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey reveal fruit juice provides around 8% of the sugar in our diet – a significant amount. But some anti-sugar campaigners have gone as far as to suggest avoiding drinking fruit juice altogether, claiming a glass of OJ is as bad for our health as a can of cola. But is this really the case?
‘A 330ml can of cola typically contains around 140 calories and 35g sugar – that’s equivalent to almost 9tsp sugar,’ says HFG nutrition consultant Juliette Kellow. ‘In reality, that’s not dissimilar from a 330ml bottle of fresh orange juice, which has around 150 calories and 33g sugar – just ½tsp sugar less. With figures like this, it’s easy to see why some people are confused and think they’d be better off drinking the cola.’
But it’s not so much fruit juice that’s a problem – it’s the vast serving sizes we tend to have these days, explains Juliette. ‘Unlike cola, which contains sugar and no other nutrients, pure fruit juice can boost our intake of vitamin C and antioxidants. But as is the case with many of the foods and drinks we now consume, we have a tendency to supersize them, which doubles – if not triples – the calories and sugar contents and leaves us with a drink comparable to no-nutrient fizzy drinks.
But while fruit juice provides nutrients, it doesn’t contain the healthy fibre you get from eating the whole fruit. ‘Drinking fruit juice won’t fill you up in the same way as eating fresh fruit will, meaning it’s easy to take in excess calories,’ explains Juliette.
So what should we do about our morning glass of OJ? ‘You can only count 150ml fruit juice as a portion of your five-a-day – anything more than this does not count,’ says Dr Susan Jebb OBE, a nutrition scientist and obesity expert. ‘The fact that juice is only considered to be one portion is intended to signal that a small amount is fine, but since it doesn’t have all the healthy components of intact fruit, it should be consumed in strict moderation. And five-a-day does not include fruit drinks with added sugar.’ In other words, it’s fine to include pure fruit juice as part of your five-a-day – but only in controlled amounts.
‘A 150ml glass of freshly squeezed OJ contains around 65 calories and 3½tsp sugar – roughly the amount that occurs naturally in an orange,’ explains Juliette. ‘So if you stick to that serving size, there’s no reason not to include fruit juice as part of a healthy balanced diet.’
However, Juliette believes the juice industry could do far more to promote this message. ‘I’d like to see a move towards producing individual 150ml cartons or bottles, and watered-down juices for adults that contain just 150ml juice – there are plenty of similar products aimed at children,’ she says, ‘I’d also like to see 150ml given as the typical serving size on nutrition labels for large cartons of juice, rather than the 200ml or 250ml that’s commonly used.’
As for fizzy drinks such as cola, the advice is simple. ‘Swap them for calorie- and sugar-free versions – or better still, water,’ says Juliette. ‘Research shows regular soft drinks provide 15% of the sugar in our diet, rising to a massive 30% in teenagers. Cutting them out is a really easy way to reduce our consumption of sugar and, therefore, empty calories.’
But it’s not just drinks we need to be wary of. According to data from market research company Kantar, presented yesterday at a conference held by The Food & Drink Innovation Network, since sugar hit the headlines sales of chilled fruit juices have dropped among certain consumer groups, but overall sales of biscuits have seen very little change!