That virtuous glass of juice is feeling the squeeze as doctors, scientists and public health authorities step up their efforts to reduce the nation's girth.
Fruit juice: An article in the Nov. 8 Section A about the health effects of drinking 100% fruit juice quoted UC Davis scientist Kimber Stanhope as saying that her studies suggest fructose, a type of sugar, would increase risk factors for cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes equally whether it was consumed in soda or in juice. Stanhope said that overconsumption of soda or 100% fruit juice would probably promote similar weight gain, one risk factor for heart disease and diabetes. However, she did not mean to imply that consumption of fructose from soda versus juice would have equal effects on other risk factors, such as increased blood triglyceride levels and decreased insulin sensitivity. She believes it is possible —though unproven -- that other components of juice may protect against those effects.
It's an awkward issue for the schools that peddle fruit juice in their cafeterias and vending machines. It's uncomfortable for advocates of a junk-food tax who say they can't afford to target juice and alienate its legions of fans. It's confusing for consumers who think they're doing something good when they chug their morning OJ, sip 22-ounce smoothies or pack apple juice in their children's lunches.
The inconvenient truth, many experts say, is that 100% fruit juice poses the same obesity-related health risks as Coke, Pepsi and other widely vilified beverages.
With so much focus on the outsized role that sugary drinks play in the country's collective weight gain -- and the accompanying rise in conditions including diabetes, heart disease and cancer -- it's time juice lost its wholesome image, these experts say.
"It's pretty much the same as sugar water," said Dr. Charles Billington, an appetite researcher at the University of Minnesota. In the modern diet, "there's no need for any juice at all."
A glass of juice concentrates all the sugar from several pieces of fruit. Ounce per ounce, it contains more calories than soda, though it tends to be consumed in smaller servings. A cup of orange juice has 112 calories, apple juice has 114, and grape juice packs 152, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The same amount of Coke has 97 calories, and Pepsi has 100.
And just like soft drinks, juice is rich in fructose -- the simple sugar that does the most to make food sweet.
UC Davis scientist Kimber Stanhope has found that consuming high levels of fructose increases risk factors for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes because it is converted into fat by the liver more readily than glucose. Her studies suggest that it doesn't matter whether the fructose is from soda or juice.
"Both are going to promote equal weight gain," she said, adding that she's perplexed by the fixation on the evils of sugar-sweetened beverages: "Why are they the only culprit?"
OJ for the masses
Juice is a relatively recent addition to the human diet. For thousands of years, people ate fruit and drank mostly water.
But in the early 1900s, citrus growers in Florida were harvesting more oranges than they could sell. Then they had an epiphany: promote juice.
"You consume more oranges if you drink them than if you eat them whole," said Alissa Hamilton, author of the book "Squeezed: What You Don't Know About Orange Juice."
The U.S. Army was instrumental in turning orange juice into a commercial product.
It originally served a powdered lemonade to ensure soldiers got enough vitamin C, but it tasted "like battery acid," Hamilton said. So, during World War II, the Army commissioned scientists to invent a system for freezing OJ in a concentrated form. The patent wound up with Minute Maid, which sold cans of frozen juice concentrate in grocery stores.
In the 1950s, pasteurization technology developed by Tropicana made orange juice even more consumer-friendly because it could be sold ready to drink in cartons, like milk.