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How to choose fruit juices and drinks

How to navigate the tricky aisles of fruit juices and choose the juice that best suits you.

We all know what fruit juice is, it's the juice squeezed from fruit. Simple. But when we buy it in the supermarket, it's not quite that straightforward.

Fruit juice, according to the rules in the Food Standards Code, can't be diluted with water and cannot have more than 4% added sugars. Juice may be reconstituted, which means water is added to a concentrate (in the same amount as was removed). Other additions to fruit juice may be salt, herbs and spices, flavours, colours, vitamins and processing aids.

Fruit drink only needs to contain 5% fruit juice or pulp (for passionfruit it can be as low as 3.5%), and there's no limit on the amount of added sugars.

The Nekta brand gives us 'Liquid kiwifruit' which is 'rich in vitamin C'. You may think this means it's 100% fruit juice, but as Nekta explain on their website, kiwifruit is a pulpy, sour fruit. So they use whole kiwifruit (without the skin and seeds), dilute the pulp to a drinkable consistency and then add sugar to make it more palatable. It ends up at 20% fruit content.

You won't see a 100% cranberry juice either; we're told that's because it would be unpalatable. McCoy has 18% cranberry juice in its 'Real cranberry drink' and Ocean Spray has 30% cranberry juice in its 'Cranberry classic'. Both McCoy and Ocean Spray dilute the 'Ruby red grapefruit' (both 30% fruit juice) as many people find pure grapefruit juice too tart.

Juice can be concentrated by heating it to remove water. This makes it cheaper to transport. There will be some loss of nutrients, especially water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C. Flavours and vitamin C may be added to replace those lost. So freshly squeezed juice is higher quality than juice made from concentrate, but juices made from concentrate should be cheaper.

Fruit juices are usually pasteurised. This is a very quick, high-heat treatment which kills any harmful bacteria and helps make the juice shelf stable.They can have a shelf life of 9-12 months depending on the packaging. The juices and drinks in our table are all shelf stable, but you'll also find juices in the chiller. These juices have a shorter shelf life and need to be kept refrigerated even before opening.

Fruit and vegetables naturally contain sugar so, for the juices, most of the sugars listed will be natural. Up to 4% sugars may be added (that's 4g per 100g); if so you'll see sugar listed in the ingredients.

In general, most of the sugar in fruit drinks is added; how much varies considerably. Just Juice Splash is the exception here as it is a 50/50 mix of juice and mineral water, so all the sugars are from the juice.

You can see in our table the energy (kilojoule) content in a cup of juice or fruit drink varies from 100-765kJ in the examples we bought. In general, fruit juice is high in energy (400-500kJ per cup) and many of the fruit drinks are too. The Sunsweet 100% prune juice is surprisingly high in energy at 765kJ per cup.

Ribena Light has only 100kJ per cup as, while it has some added sugar, the main sweeteners are low-energy sucralose and Ace-K (see The truth about artificial sweeteners for more information). This compares to 650kJ for standard Ribena; the difference is in the sweeteners as standard Ribena has 6.4% fruit juice versus 5% in Ribena Light.

Many juices and fruit drinks contain a significant amount of vitamin C, both naturally and through fortification. The Suggested Dietary Target for vitamin C for good health is 190mg (for women) to 220mg (for men). In the products we purchased, the vitamin C content in one cup ranged from 37mg in Ocean Spray 'Cranberry classic' to 117mg in Charlie's 'Pressed apple and blackcurrant juice'.

Thexton's 'Red grape fruit drink' is an example of a fruit drink with added vitamins – A,C and E in this case. But a drink like this one – which contains only 5% juice – is not the best place to get your vitamins. It's really best to try and get vitamins from food, and a healthy diet should give you all you need.

Because juice and fruit drinks are high in sugars, the worst thing you can do is 'bathe' your teeth in them; this will rot teeth in the same way as constantly munching on sweets would. For the same reason, adults and children should drink juice from a glass whenever possible. Juice is best consumed at meals: the vitamin C will help absorb iron from the meal and the saliva produced from eating helps to protect teeth by washing away the fruit sugar and acids.

V8 vegetable juice tells us on its packaging that one glass of juice is the 'equivalent of 3 serves of vegetables'. But be aware that you do not get the fibre from juice that fruit and vegetables provide, and juice is higher in kilojoules but doesn't fill you up like fruit and vegetables do.

If you want to count a glass of fruit juice as one of your 5+ a day fruit and vegetable serves, you can; but no more than that. (And make sure it's juice, not a fruit drink!) Having said that, if you enjoy a juice or fruit drink, why not continue eating lots of (low-kilojoule, high-fibre) fruit and vege as well?

Although considerably lower than consuming the number of whole fruit and vegetables that go into them, there are three juices that do make a contribution to your daily fibre intake: 1 cup of prune juice provices 2.5g; tomato juice 1.8g; and V8 vegetable juice 1.3g.

Juices and fruit drinks can add a lot of kilojoules to your day. Because they don't provide the feeling of fullness that food of a similar kilojoule amount would give, they're easy to overlook. If you're watching your weight we advise limiting yourself to one cup of juice a day, or even better use 1/2 cup and dilute it with water. Use water to quench your thirst and food to provide energy, nutrients and that full feeling.

Following some controversy (and legal action) in the juice industry,
the New Zealand Juice and Beverage Association developed and agreed
different terms to be used on fruit juices and drinks.

  • Concentrate: Fruit juice that has been concentrated by removing some of the water content.

  • Reconstituted: Fruit juice prepared by adding water to concentrate.

  • Not from concentrate (NFC): This juice does not have any water removed or added back. It may be pasteurised.

  • Fresh: Does not contain any additives, flavours or juices that have undergone a concentration process. Fresh juices may not have been pasteurised, stored frozen or contain frozen juice and have a short shelf-life.

  • Pure: Not from concentrate juices that contain no additives but could be a combination of fruit juices.

  • 100%: Means the same as 'pure' for not from concentrate juices. If reconstituted from concentrate, the label will say '100% juice from concentrate' or '100% reconstituted fruit juice' (in this case flavours and vitamin C may be added to replace those lost in the concentration process).

  • Natural: Does not contain food additives (unless they are natural components) or have any part removed or changed.

Read the small print: This is one product where, if you want to know what you're getting, you need to start reading the ingredients lists. The words and imagery are all designed to entice, but the ingredients list is factual. This will tell you whether or not the juice is made from concentrate, exactly how much fruit juice (or pulp) is in it, and what has been added, like vitamins, minerals, flavours, colours and preservatives.

Don't overdo it: Both juices and fruit drinks are usually high in energy but they won't make you feel full, so limit your intake to 1/2-1 cup a day (unless you're trying to gain weight). Also, try diluting with water.

Don't replace fruit with juice: Fruit juice is healthy and it will provide nutrients, including antioxidants. But don't use that as an excuse not to eat lots of vegetables and fruit (they're full of nutrients, their 'packaging' just can't tell you).

Choose a juice or fruit drink you like and can afford: Yes, a freshly squeezed juice is higher quality than one made from concentrate, and a fruit juice will certainly provide more nutrients than a fruit drink, but you also pay accordingly. With the proviso that your consumption is limited to 1/2-1 cup a day, we recommend you choose on affordability and taste.

  • Best is a fruit juice.

  • Next best is a low-sugar (<15%), high-juice (>20%) fruit drink.

  • After that you're getting into 'lolly water'.

First published: Apr 2007



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