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Monday’s medical myth: fruit juice is healthier than soft drink

We often hear, from health experts and well-meaning parents, that soft drink is terribly unhealthy and we should opt for fruit juice instead. But apart from a few additional vitamins and minerals, there…

Fruit juice contains as much sugar as soft drink. Gail M Tang

We often hear, from health experts and well-meaning parents, that soft drink is terribly unhealthy and we should opt for fruit juice instead. But apart from a few additional vitamins and minerals, there isn’t much that differentiates fruit juice from soft drink: both beverages will give you the same sugar and calorie hit.

Before you start venting in the comments section below, let me make an important disclaimer: fruit juice does have a few redeeming health benefits that make it a little better than soft drink. Prune juice can alleviate constipation, cranberry juice helps reduce the risk of urinary tract infections and many juices contain micronutrients such as vitamin C and potassium.

But these nutrients are found in many other foods. And vitamin C and potassium deficiency are hardly public health issues in Australia.

One of the biggest assumptions about fruit juice is it must be healthy because it’s full of “natural sugars”. Fruit juice does contain natural sugar, which is a mix of fructose, sucrose and glucose, but the quantity (and kilojoules) is on par with soft drinks.

Kids who drink fruit juice are more likely to be overweight than kids who don’t. Xavi Talleda

The term “natural” is also misleading, as the sugar (sucrose) in Australian soft drink is just as natural as that found in Australian fruit juice because it comes from sugar cane. Whether juice is extracted from fruit, or sugar is obtained from sugar cane, both are forms of food processing.

And when it comes to your waistline, that sugar has to be used up or it will eventually result in weight gain. Think of that the next time you’re lining up for a super-sized freshly squeezed concoction from your favourite juice bar. That one drink may contain six to 10 pieces of fruit and probably has enough kilojoules to meet more than 10% of your daily energy needs.

While science is still unclear in this area, there is evidence to suggest that feelings of fullness (satiety) after a meal are lower when those kilojoules are consumed in liquid form (especially from more clear type fluids), rather than as solid food.

This could be due to the rapid transit of the liquid through the stomach and intestines, giving less time to stimulate signalling of satiety. This increases the chance of over-consuming energy with the end result of greater weight gain, or a sabotaging of weight loss.

One study conducted by Deakin University researchers found the more fruit juice Australian schoolchildren drank, the more likely they were to be overweight compared with kids who didn’t drink fruit juice. A similar link between increased fruit juice consumption and weight gain has been seen in children from low-income families.

Soft drink will give you the same sugar and calorie hit as fruit juice. Enrst Vikne

When you’re drinking fruit instead of eating it, you’re missing out on the pulp that’s left behind – and that’s where all the fibre is. Fibre is an important nutrient for controlling body weight and keeping the digestive tract healthy. But most Australians aren’t getting anywhere near the 30 grams for men and 25 grams for women of fibre recommended by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Fibre also helps protect against colorectal cancer, the second biggest cancer killer of Australians each year, after lung cancer. In a recent update to the most comprehensive report ever published on the role of food, nutrition and physical activity on cancer, the World Cancer Research Fund upgraded the level of evidence linking foods containing fibre with protection against colorectal cancer from “probable” to “convincing”.

For someone struggling to keep their weight in check, drinking too much fruit juice or soft drink will make it hard to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. If you feel the need for a drink, water is your best choice. And when it comes to fruit, eat it, don’t drink it.