Is fruit juice really ‘healthy’?

In previous columns I have been overflowing with enthusiasm for the benefits to be had from drinking water. Many individuals find that keeping fluid levels topped up can stave off feelings of fatigue and lethargy, and research has linked increased water consumption with a reduced risk of a range of conditions including heart disease and some forms of cancer. I was therefore very pleased to learn that the Government has recently recommended that school pupils be allowed to take water into the classroom. This move seems to have been triggered by British research which shows that even relatively mild dehydration may provoke headaches and irritability in children, and may cause brain power to dry up too. It seems allowing access to water during lessons could well encourage fluid thinking in our kids.

I note that another of the Government’s recent recommendations concerning liquid refreshment is for fizzy drinks in school vending machines to be replaced with fruit juice. While juices derived from fruit obviously offer better nutrition than sugar-charged or artificially-sweetened soft drinks, there are other things about them that does not whet my appetite. For instance, in the juicing a fruit a degree of its nutritional goodness (such as a good deal of its fibre and a proportion of its nutrients) get left behind. Also, most fruit juices are dehydrated, rehydrated and pasteurised prior to packaging. Overall, such processing is only likely to detract from the nutritional benefits offered by whole fruit.

Juiced fruit typically contains a blend of fructose, sucrose and glucose which, together, give it a sugar concentration that is very similar to that of regular soft drinks. Such sugariness, coupled with an acidic nature, has caused fruit juice to be cited as a risk factor for both dental decay and a wearing away of tooth enamel known as dental erosion. Once swallowed, the high sugar content of fruit juice can pose problems for the lower reaches of the gut too. Some children may be unable to absorb such a glut of sugar efficiently, which can lead to fermentation in the bowel with resultant bloating and wind. Also, excesses of sugar may draw water into the gut, precipitating diarrhoea.

Once absorbed from the gut, the sugar in fruit juice may pose other hazards by stimulating the production of insulin – a hormone which increases the production of fat in the body, while at the same time stalling our fat-burning potential. Evidence is amassing that links the consumption of readily available sugar from food with a higher risk of obesity. Also, there is some concern that fruit juice consumption may displace other more nutritious foods from the diet, increasing the risk of malnutrition. One study published in the journal Pediatrics found that young children drinking more than 360 mls of fruit juice each day were prone to short stature and obesity.

While I do not think that fruit juice should be forbidden for kids, it does seem as though there is good reason for them to consume it with some caution. I recommend a limit of a glass or two each day, and that this be diluted half-and-half with water. This will help to reduce any undesirable effects that might be inflicted by sugary load found in fruit juice. While such drinks may have a healthy image, a closer look reveals some juicy details that some may find quite unpalatable.

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