For much of my young life, I believed one of the biggest health misconceptions there is: That soda is unhealthy, and juice is good for you. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple. Yes, homemade juice that contains nutrient-dense fruits and veggies is a good way to get some added nutrients. But in terms of sugar, nutrition, calories, and the potential for questionable additives, the truth is that most store-bought, pasteurized juice is basically junk food, plain and simple, and should be viewed as such.
Juice has always been viewed as a substitute for real fruit, but with the popularity of juice cleanses and at-home juicers, it’s gotten a lot of positive PR. Of late, the message surrounding juice has widely been that it is a healthy food, and that juicing can save your life. But that’s just not universally true–there are good juices, bad juices, and, sadly, very bad juices.
“Unfortunately, there’s this myth that juice is healthy for children,” says Jennifer L. Pomeranz, JD, MPH, from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, “but [most] juice is very high in sugar. Your body responds to juice the same way it responds to other sugary beverages. So, unfortunately, parents are feeding their children juice, not realizing that it’s just as bad as other sugary beverages. It might have a couple of vitamins, but it’s better to eat the whole fruit.”
Conventional juices and juice cocktails–specifically those made with fruit–are, by and large, made out of three ingredients: water, sugar, and some fruit juice concentrate. Occasionally, they have added ascorbic acid (a source of vitamin C) or other ingredients to make them seem slightly healthier, but at the end of the day, they offer next to nothing nutritionally. Compare these two labels. One if for MinuteMaid Fruit Punch, and the other is for an eight-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola:
Of course, homemade, unpasteurized, 100% fresh juices aren’t quite so nutritionally devoid–in fact, those made with lower-sugar ingredients, like cucumbers and kale, are mostly water and vitamins and are actually pretty great for you–but they’re still not, contrary to popular belief, an actual, regular one-to-one substitution for fruits or vegetables.
First, juicing removes certain health benefits of actual fruit and veggies, particularly the fiber content. So truly, juice (no matter how good) can’t ever exactly be a replacement for whole foods. In fact, there’s no body of sound evidence that supports any of what proponents of juicing claim (that your body can absorb nutrients in juice more easily, that it’s great for detoxing, etc.), though there are plenty of anecdotal claims, and the ability to drink nutrients can be very helpful for those who are in a hurry or who have a hard time eating a lot of fibrous food.
Second, there’s a huge distinction to be drawn between juice that you make at home with kale and carrots, and the juice that your kid may be buying out of a vending machine at school, which, although it might be labeled “100%” is also probably pasteurized and still pretty damn sugary.
For conventional juice drinks, pasteurization is required so that it can sit on a shelf, unrefrigerated, for long periods of time. That pasteurization process essentially eliminates all of the fragile, awesome vitamins and minerals that fresh juice provides. Which means that fresh juice is still leaps and bounds more nutritious than pasteurized, store-bought, non-refrigerator, sugar-filled, bottled juice.
And if you’re consistently subbing whole fruits and vegetables for their pasteurized, juicy counterparts (and aren’t, say, a health-conscious person downing vegetable juice as a supplement to your whole foods-based diet), you’re missing out all those necessary components that make fruits and veggies so good for you, while loading up on unnecessary and useless sugar carbs. Even with “100% juice,” a piece of whole fruit is still a better choice.