Nutrition in a Glass

When it comes to juice, think before you drink

5 min read

Juices are everywhere these days. Stroll down the aisles of any grocery or convenience store and you'll find a seemingly endless assortment of juices for sale, from mango-melon to strawberry-kiwi to carrot-apple-ginger.

The good news is that fruit and vegetable juices are full of antioxidants that can help fight diseases such as cancer, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Indeed, easy-to-swallow juices can count toward the five servings of fruit and vegetables that the National Cancer Institute recommends we get every day.

But there is a downside: Juices can also add lots of extra calories to your eating plan in a hurry. And not all juices are equally healthful.

When selecting a juice, buyer beware: many so-called juices contain little real juice and have more added sugar than anything else. So read the label carefully. Your best choice is one that is 100% fruit or vegetable juice -- not a "juice drink," "fruit flavored drink" or a sugar-heavy "blend."

And even when it is 100% juice, remember that juices lack the fiber of whole fruit. So juice should count for only one of your five recommended servings of fruit or veggies a day. Also keep in mind that some juices use concentrated white grape juice as a sweetener, making them higher in simple sugars and calories even though they can still truthfully claim to be 100% fruit juice.

Don't get me wrong -- pure fruit juice is nutritious as well as delicious, containing a whole host of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. It's much better than drinking a soda.

But even pure fruit juices are high in naturally occurring simple sugars. So unless you eat them along with other foods, they can send your blood sugar soaring (and leave you feeling hungry when it comes back down again). That's why diabetics often use orange juice for a quick fix for low blood sugar.

And those natural sugars can add up to lots of calories. A glass of fruit juice ranges from 100 (orange, grapefruit, apple) to 170 (grape and prune) calories for an 8-ounce serving.

It's easy to overdo them, because it's much easier to drink 12 ounces of orange juice than it is to eat two oranges. Whole fruit is more filling because it also contains the fiber that helps slow down digestion, making it more satisfying.

The keys to enjoying juices while making the most of the calories on your eating plan are:

The July/August 2004 issue of the Nutrition Action Healthletter rated popular fruit juices based on how much of 12 vitamins and minerals one cup supplied. It comes as no surprise that the big nutrition winner was orange juice, followed by grapefruit juice.

At the bottom of the list were apple and grape juices, which provided the fewest of these nutrients per serving, but they nonetheless contained nutrients. Compare any type of pure fruit juice to a soda, cocktail, or sugar-sweetened drink, and the juice wins handily.

In addition to seeking out 100% pure juice, look for juices that are rich in color. The most colorful juices tend to be highest in antioxidants and phytochemicals. For example, pink grapefruit juice has the antioxidants lycopene and beta-carotene, which are not found in regular grapefruit juice.

Tomato or mixed-vegetable juice is another great example of how color rules; the deep red juice brims with nutrients.

Indeed, most vegetable juices contain only 50-60 calories per cup, are higher in fiber than most other juices, and make a satisfying snack. Their only downside is their sodium content. Be sure to check the labels and look for lower-sodium varieties, like V8 Low Sodium.

To be on the safe side, stay clear of unpasteurized juices, which can potentially harbor harmful bacteria. Again, read the label to make sure the juice you choose is pasteurized and dated for freshness.

Some juices are known for offering natural benefits beyond their nutrient value. Anyone suffering from constipation knows the value of a glass of prune juice and its natural sugar sorbitol, which cannot be digested. And cranberry juice is touted for its ability to help prevent bladder and urinary tract infections. So enjoy these juices for both their taste and healthful properties.

These days, food manufacturers are tossing in vitamins, minerals, and other ingredients to get you to buy their juice. Vitamin C is a popular additive, and for most of us, an added dose is beneficial, especially during cold and flu season.

Fortified orange juice has also become one of the most popular ways to deliver extra calcium. One glass can provide the same amount of absorbable calcium as a glass of milk. This is an easy way to get calcium into your diet if you are lactose-intolerant or otherwise unable to get three daily servings of dairy foods. But if your diet includes plenty of calcium-rich dairy foods along with multivitamin containing calcium, choose regular juice instead.

Further, getting a healthier heart may be as easy as drinking a daily glass or two of orange juice fortified with cholesterol-lowering plant sterols. The FDA has allowed some foods containing plant sterols to carry labels claiming that they can help reduce the risk of heart disease. But don't throw away your cholesterol-lowering medication quite yet; the sterols reduce cholesterol levels by only about 10%. Check with your doctor about whether these juices (or cholesterol-lowering spreads like Take Control and Benecol) are right for you.

You can also find juices with an array of other added vitamins and minerals, as well as herbal ingredients such as ginseng and wheatgrass. These added nutrients are not typically lacking in our diets. And there's no need to supplement your eating plan with botanical remedies, many of which have few, if any, proven health benefits. The end result: These pumped-up juices generally aren't any better than good old-fashioned orange juice, and they tend to cost more.

So let's raise a glass to informed choices and moderation, and enjoy your juice!