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Welcome to the War on Juice

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There’s nothing quite like a cold glass of orange juice in the morning.

There’s also nothing as bad as a cold glass of orange juice in the morning. At least, depending on whom you ask.

Once a staple of school lunch boxes and the elusive “balanced breakfast”, fruit juice is now squarely in the nutritional crosshairs of those battling childhood obesity and encouraging us to eat fewer processed foods.

Detractors claim its much-hyped vitamin content is usually diluted with preservatives and artificial flavouring. But they say even fresh, 100 percent juice has little else going for it. It’s not surprising your kids love it, though, because it’s basically pure sugar.

This backlash against juice has in turn fuelled a backlash against the backlash. Those fighting to salvage the good name of OJ claim the anti-juice movement has been over-hyped by contrarians, hipsters and fad-mongers who just want to go against the grain.

Don’t believe me? Just Google “Is juice healthy?” and you’ll see how strangely controversial the issue is, with top newspapers and magazines throwing their hat into the Great Juice Debate.

In one corner, Time and Washington Post give a firm thumbs-down to pure fruit juice, with Time pointing out that 90 percent of Americans don’t eat enough actual fruits and vegetables.

In contrast, CNN and the Livestrong blog say that while pure juice could be healthier, it’s not that bad. It has lots of vitamins, and there are far worse drinks to reach for than a glass of OJ.

It’s all about the fibre

The commonly cited problem with pure juice is that it contains little fibre.

Fibre is a structural component of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other plant-based foods. It can’t be digested but it serves an important purpose in digestion, metabolic regulation, and overall gastrointestinal health. It also regulates the flow of waste from the body.

To put it a little more bluntly, fibre makes one feel full for longer, and helps one poop comfortably and at reasonable intervals.

Lack of fibre has been linked to weight gain, diabetes and heart disease. The United States Food and Drug Administration recommends 1.5-2 cups of fruit each day and 2-3 cups of veggies, but  studies show that most Americans fall well short of that target.

It’s a similar story in Singapore, where the 2010 National Nutrition Survey found that only 11.2 percent of adult Singapore residents consumed at least two servings of both fruit and vegetables a day – quite a drop on 2014, when the figure stood at 14.3 percent. The survey also revealed that 21.1 percent of adults had “insufficient” fibre intake – defined as less than 70 percent of the recommended daily average – up from 15.4 percent six years earlier.

High sugar and low fibre consumption have contributed to rising prevalence of diabetes, which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last August described as a “health crisis”. One in nine Singaporeans has diabetes, he noted, including three in 10 over the age of 60.

So juice is bad?

When juice is extracted from fruit, all of the fibre is left behind. Missing out on that fibre is bad enough, but there’s more; without the fibre, the body feels less full and satisfied than usual relative to the amount of calories coming in. To top it off, research suggests that the body feels more satisfied when it actually has to chew. Taken together, that means you’ll reach for a snack sooner after drinking juice than if you’d eaten the actual fruit instead.

As New York City dietitian Cynthia Sass told Time magazine: “While your body likes the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, juices lack fibre and don’t require chewing, so they’re less satiating than whole produce.”

But all of this assumes we’re drinking 100 percent juice. Modern storage and processing techniques often reduce the flavour of juice; more than a few of the products on supermarket shelves have been bolstered with artificial flavours, extra sweetener or both, often rendering them little healthier than Coca-Cola.

But is juice that bad?

Okay, so assuming the juice you’re drinking is the good stuff – that is, pure and relatively un-processed – surely it has vitamins at least, right?

Sure, say juice sympathisers like nutritionist and CNN food writer Lisa Drayer. “A glass of fresh orange juice or grapefruit juice with breakfast isn’t just refreshing. It also delivers a healthy dose of vitamin C and potassium, which can be especially helpful if you tend to forego fruit,” she writes.

That’s a far cry from the warnings about dramatic weight gain and mood swings. Those who advise against food products on nutritional grounds can sometimes get a bit hyperbolic, as with this viral “What Happens One Hour After Drinking a Can of Coke” infographic.

(Spoiler alert: I drank a Coke yesterday and didn’t become a neurotic, incontinent mess.)

The key takeaway is pretty simple: Be mindful of the amount of sugar that juice contains and consume in moderation. At the same time, you don’t need to sweat too much about that glass of apple juice you had with lunch.

But if you can, make a smoothie

This is the Moon Age. We all have blenders in our own homes now – there’s no need to rely on big factory brands to bottle juice for us. If you want the sweetness and the fibre, you can have it; just toss those raw orange segments or that diced pear into the grinder with a bit of ice water as necessary to make it more liquid.

(This is not to advocate “juice cleansing” or detoxes, which have pretty much no backing in science.)

Smoothies are underrated – so much so that we’ll eventually give them an entire blog post of their own. But for now, consider this: If you’re already putting fruit in a blender, you might as well toss in other good things as well. Indeed, the USFDA recommends double the daily vegetable intake as fruits, so why not add some broccoli and carrots in with the apples, oranges and mangoes? They are loaded with nutrients and their flavours are too bland to spoil the fruit profile.

Other things to enhance a health drink: peanut butter, almonds, whole milk, soy milk, chia seeds and matcha (green tea) powder.

But if you can’t be bothered with all that and just want some tasty OJ, don’t worry – we won’t judge you too much.

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